3-D Eye Cells Printed For The First Time; Continue To Thrive After Printing

By Gabrielle Jonas on December 17, 2013 9:19 PM EST

A 3-D inkjet printer in the UK has successfully printed out ocular cells, making it the first time the technology has been used successfully to print mature central nervous system cells. The "ink" is made from retinal cells derived from adult rat retinas suspended in a special culture medium. The printed retinal ganglion cells, which transmit information from the eye to the brain, and glial cells, which support and protect neurons, retained their ability to survive and grow in culture.

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The breakthrough, detailed in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Biofabrication, elevates the use of 3-D biomedical printing to arranging cells into highly defined patterns and structures. The hope is that these developments will lead to the production of artificial tissue grafts made from cells found in the human retina — ultimately leading to regenerative medicine that can help cure certain kinds of blindness.

Co-authors Dr. Keith Martin and Dr. Barbara Lorber, both of the University of Cambridge, used a piezoelectric inkjet printer, made in Texas, that ejected the cells through a sub-millimeter-diameter nozzle in response to specific electrical pulses. "We would like to further develop our printing process to be suitable for commercial, multi-nozzle print heads," Martin said, telling International Science Times that, "by 'commercial' we mean an industrial — rather than consumer system — purpose-built to print cells." His goal is to make living tissues using multiple nozzles which each have a piezoelectric driver that can be individually addressed, so that "potentially different types of cells could be printed from different nozzles at the same time as part of a tissue-engineering protocol." His team has yet to use stem cells for 3-D printing, but it will.  "My lab does a lot of stem cell work and we hope to try stem cell derived cells too soon," he said. "We haven't printed the cells back into animals yet. For the future!"

The single nozzle piezoelectric inkjet device they used is comprised of a glass capillary tapered to a sub-millimeter diameter nozzle, and the print-head ejects fluid drops when a specific electrical pulse is supplied. The driving waveform was defined by a PC-driven generator. "We plan to extend this study to print other cells of the retina and to investigate if light-sensitive photoreceptors can be successfully printed using inkjet technology," Martin said.

In addition to the promise of helping cure disease or deficits that cause blindness, 3-D printing is thought to offer a possibility of curtailing animal testing, said Dr. Gregory E. Kaebnick, Research Scholar at the Hastings Center in New York, an ethics think-tank. "It does sound like a very promising approach that could perhaps both speed drug development and reduce animal testing," Kaebnick said.  "I still need to be convinced that it could eliminate animal testing, as some proponents seem to claim. Another very promising use might be to conduct toxicity testing for the tens of thousands of industrial chemicals that are in use."

A 3-D printer lays down retinal cells from an adult  rat. (Credit: Dr. Keith Martin)
A 3-D printer lays down retinal cells from an adult rat. (Credit: Dr. Keith Martin)

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