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Growing uses for 3D printing

Regenerative medicine and coral restoration are just two of the areas where the emerging field of bioprinting research is having an impact.

SDG 13

Imagine going for an operation to replace your dis­eased trachea — the surgeons have a small printer in the operating theater and, using your own previously harvested cells, they print you a new windpipe and transplant it directly into your body.

Such a scenario could be realized within the next 5-10 years, according to KAUST bioengineer Char­lotte Hauser, who works at the forefront of 3D bio­printing research.

SDG 14

The most innovative aspects of her research are the material she uses for the scaffold — the interlocking structure of the body part — and the robotic printer developed in her lab, which ensures extremely accurate and consistent results.

Bioprinting is used to create tis­sue, organs or other body structures in the presence of cells. The process requires a scaffold to mimic the structure of the target body part and a gel that contains the human cells or pro­teins to promote their growth. Unlike many groups who use nonnatural polymers that have no resem­blance to natural fibers, Hauser has developed a biomimetic collagen that closely resembles human collagen, the body’s connective tissue, to use as a scaffold for all kinds of grafting with tissues. She describes it as a natural synthetic material.

As well as the tracheal replacement project, Hauser and her team work closely with hospitals in Saudi Arabia for drug screening using models for diseases, such as colon cancer and leukemia.

By recreating a 3D structure of a tumor in the lab, they can screen to determine what drug or cocktail of drugs is most effective to reduce or even destroy the tumor.

© 2021 KAUST; Anastasia Serin

Coral regeneration

Bioprinting also has environmental applications. Hauser and her team are collaborating on coral reef restoration with Carlos Duarte and other col­leagues in KAUST’s Red Sea Research Center. She is also involved in Saudi Arabia’s NEOM coral resto­ration project, which will include the world’s largest coral nursery.

Coral skeletons are made of calcium carbonate. Hauser’s team has developed a calcium carbonate photo-initiated ink, which is a mixture of resin and calcium carbonate.

“With all my materials, I’m trying to ensure that they are decomposable, sustainable and ecofriendly for a more biocompatible world.”

“The problem with other materials used as sub­strates, such as concrete and metals or even ceramic tiles, is that the substrate itself becomes waste,” she explains. “With all my materials, I’m trying to ensure that they are decomposable, sustainable and ecofriendly for a more biocompatible world.”

Her team is currently performing proof-of-concept studies with this material in seawater tanks. How­ever, for large-scale reef restoration projects, they are printing silicone molds that are much quicker to print and will enable them to scale up the project.

Hauser says the main challenges lie in the tech­nology itself and sourcing the materials, such as the customized bio inks and scaffold material, for example. For her, the goal is always to come as close to nature as possible in tissue engineering, in terms of devising the best biomaterials to use in scaffolds and learning how to grow organ-specific cells out­side the body while keeping them alive.

She believes that the future lies with in-vivo print­ing, such as a printer in an operating theater that uses the patient’s own cells and that is easy enough to use by surgeons. “The transla­tion is already happening.”