Much as a frame provides structural support for a house and the chassis provides strength and shape for a car, a team of engineers believe they have a way to create the structural framework for growing living tissue using an off-the-shelf 3-D printer.

A figure displays the cells grown on polymeric fibers created by 3D near field electrospinning.
(Credit: Penn State University)

The researchers' report that their aim is to create a novel, low-cost and efficient method to fabricate high-resolution and repeatable 3D polymer fiber patterns on nonconductive materials for tissue engineering with available hobbyist-grade 3D printers. The method they use is a combination of 3D printing and electrospinning, a method that uses electric charge to spin nanometer threads from either a polymer melt or solution.

Currently nearly all complex transplant tissues, from hearts and kidneys to tendons, come from living or dead donors. The researchers are looking for a way to grow replacement tissues reliably using inexpensive methods.

The researchers' apparatus uses the electrospinner to replace the extruder nozzle on the 3-D printer. The printer can deposit a precise pattern of fibers in three dimensions to form a scaffold in a hydrogel on which cells can grow. Once the tissue has grown sufficiently, the scaffolding can be dissolved, leaving only a structured tissue appropriate for use.