3D bioprinted heart provides new tool for surgeons

Researchers from the College of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, USA, have created a full-size 3D bioprinted human heart model.

Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Adam Feinberg, led the research team in using their Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels (FRESH) technique to create the model. Their paper detailing the work has been published in ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering.

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Using a specially built 3D printer, the model reportedly mimics the elasticity of cardiac tissue and sutures realistically. The culmination of two years of research, the team is hoping this latest breakthrough will hold promise for surgeons and clinicians and have long term implications for the future of bioengineered organ research.

Aiming to fill the demand for 3D printed soft polymers, the FRESH technique uses a needle to inject bioink into a bath of soft hydrogel which supports the object as it prints. Once finished, application of heat melts away the hydrogel leaving only the 3D bioprinted object.

According to the team, the major obstacle to achieving this milestone was printing a human heart at full scale. The building of a new custom 3D printer was required to hold a gel support bath large enough to print at the desired size, as well as minor software changes to maintain speed and fidelity.

A 3D bioprinted heart model developed by Adam Feinberg and his team. (Image credit: Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering)

Facilities currently used in major hospitals for 3D printing models of patients’ bodies can only use hard plastic or rubber, but Feinberg’s team claim to have created their heart from a natural soft polymer called alginate. This gives it similar properties to real cardiac tissue, researchers confirmed, enabling the potential for surgeons to accurately plan for real procedures. Feinberg aims to begin working immediately with surgeons and clinicians to ensure it’s ready for hospital settings.

“We can now build a model that not only allows for visual planning, but allows for physical practice,” Feinberg commented. “The surgeon can manipulate it and have it actually respond like real tissue, so that when they get into the operating site they’ve got an additional layer of realistic practice in that setting.”

The team would like to one day see these soft, biocompatible scaffolds providing the structure onto which cells adhere and form an organ system, placing biomedicine one step closer to the ability to repair or replace full human organs.