An engineering firm has developed a 3D bio-printer that could one day be used to create organs on demand for organ replacement surgery. The device is already capable of growing arteries and its creators say that arteries "printed" by the device could be used in heart bypass surgery in as little as five years. Meanwhile, more complex organs such as hearts, and teeth and bone should be possible within ten years.

The 3D bio-printer allows scientists to place cells of almost any type into a desired 3D pattern. It includes two print heads, one for placing human cells, and the other for placing a hydrogel, scaffold, or support matrix. The cells used by the device need to be the cells of what is being regenerated – building an artery requires arterial cells for example. Because the patient’s own cells are used the new organ will not be rejected by the body. The printer fits inside a standard biosafety cabinet for sterile use.

Its creators say that one of the most complex challenges in the development of the printer was being able to repeatedly position the capillary tip, attached to the print head, to within microns. This was essential to ensure that the cells are placed in exactly the right position. A computer controlled, laser-based calibration system was developed to achieve the required repeatability.

The 3D bio-printers include a software interface that allows engineers to build a model of the tissue construct before the printer commences the physical constructions of the organs cell-by-cell using the automated, laser-calibrated print heads.

The printer is the result of collaboration between Australian engineering firm Invetech, and Organovo, a regenerative medicine company based in San Diego, California. Organovo selected Invetech in May 2009 as its technology development partner and asked the company to design and develop a highly integrated, extremely reliable and simple to use 3D bio-printer system, which could then be transferred to manufacture and commercial sale.

Now, just eight months later, Invetech has delivered the first production model 3D bio-printer to Organovo. Invetech plan to ship a number of 3D bio-printers to Organovo during 2010 and 2011 and Organovo will be placing the printers globally with research institutions investigating human tissue repair and organ replacement.

Organovo CEO, Keith Murphy, says the bio-printer represents a breakthrough because they provide for the first time a flexible technology platform for organizations working on many different types of tissue construction and organ replacement.

“Researchers can place liver cells on a preformed scaffold, support kidney cells with a co-printed scaffold, or form adjacent layers of epithelial and stromal soft tissue that grow into a mature tooth. Ultimately the idea would be for surgeons to have tissue on demand for various uses, and the best way to do that is get a number of bio-printers into the hands of researchers and give them the ability to make three dimensional tissues on demand, “ said Murphy.