3D printed organs offer alternative to animal testing

Posted on 15 Nov 2016 by Aiden Burgess

There is no doubt that 3D printing has become an integral technology in a number of industries due to its ability to quickly create custom parts, prototype designs and tools.

Now it has the potential to help shape the future of drug testing. Harvard University researchers have created the first entirely 3D printed organs on a chip with integrated sensing.

The ‘heart-on-a-chip’ is built by a fully automated digital manufacturing procedure and can be quickly fabricated and customised to allow researchers to easily collect reliable data for short and long-term studies.

The new organs-on-chips mimic the micro-architecture and functions of body parts such as lungs, hearts, tongues and intestines, while also mimicking the structure and function of native tissue.

Researchers make the first 3D printed organs-on-chips

This new 3D printing technology should help reduce the rate of drug testing on animals by pharmaceutical companies and academic labs, as the organs-on-chips provide a new ground-breaking alternative to traditional testing.

Statistics from a study conducted by the website statisticbrain.com found that 19.5 million animals in the US were killed each year in research.

The new organ-on-a-chip 3D printed technology should dramatically reduce animal testing numbers, as it can replace the need to test on animal subjects.

The research by the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences regarding the organ-on-a-chip was recently published in Nature Materials on October 24.

The paper highlighted the fact that biomedical research has relied on animal studies and conventional cell cultures for decades. However, it said that recent advancements in microphysiological systems (MPS), known as organs-on-chips, can simulate the structure and function of native tissues in vitro and have emerged as promising alternatives to conventional testing.

The Harvard researchers addressed the problem of current MPS typically lacking integrated sensors and their fabrication requiring multi-step lithographic processes, by introducing a facile route for fabricating a new class of instrumental cardiac ‘microphysiological devices’ via ‘multimaterial’ 3D printing.

The researchers designed six functional inks which enable integration of soft strain gauge sensors within micro-architectures that guide the self-assembly of physio-mimetic laminar cardiac tissues, which helped the research team to validate that these embedded sensors provide non-invasive, electronic readouts of tissue contractile stresses inside cell incubator environments.

The Harvard team then further applied these devices to study drug responses as well as the contractile development of human stem cell-derived laminar cardiac tissues over four weeks, leading to the development of the 3D-printed organs-on-chips.

While the organs-on-chips presents a dynamic new way for pharmaceutical companies, and the like, to test drugs, the fabrication and data collection process for this new technology is expensive and labourious. It also requires the use of clean rooms while the multi-step lithographic process and data collection requires microscopy or high-speed cameras.

Co–author of the paper and graduate student Travis Busbee was confident of addressing these challenges.

“Our approach was to address these two challenges simultaneously via digital manufacturing,” he said. “By developing new printable inks for multi-material 3D printing, we were able to automate the fabrication process while increasing the complexity of the devices.”