The mind can barely wrap itself around the concept of a printer producing faithful, working versions of our body parts or organs. Yet, this technology continues to develop, opening up more and more health avenues to us, assisted by the work of researchers like Dr Andrew Daly and Professor Abhay Pandit of the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG).
We spoke with Dr Daly about 3D biological printing, the potential scope of this ground-breaking technology and its vital role within the LifeSaver Project’s mission to create a viable replica of the human placenta.
“We print cells using 3D printers specifically designed so that we can process cells through them,” Dr Daly said.
He adds: “This allows us to position cells in whatever type of design of three-dimensional geometry we want. The engineering behind it is that we try to make bio-materials that the cells can stay alive in. These bio-materials mimic the environment cells naturally reside in within the body. Similar to a regular printer people use that deposits ink onto paper, we deposit cells onto bio-materials and build that up in layers to make something 3-dimensional.”
In the case of the LifeSaver Project, the focus is on placental tissue and making a working placental model to test pharmaceuticals and other substances. Dr Andrew Daly and his colleague Professor Abhay Pandit have extensive experience developing biomaterials mimicking heart, nerve, cartilage, and bone. Still, the placenta is an exciting new area of research for their team.
“Placental tissue is one of the more difficult challenges we’ve undertaken. Despite its importance, it’s an underexplored area of research. So, that frontier was a real draw for us. There haven’t been many people who have created mimics in the lab of placental tissue despite similar success with lots of other organs,” Dr Daly explained.
Dr Daly originates from a mechanical engineering background but went on to specialise in 3D printing of biological tissues for his doctoral research. The scope of 3-D printing biomaterial research takes on questions of integrating cells, how to print them, and how to think of them as materials.
“The main challenges we’re undertaking with this type of research is taking different cell types from the placenta and trying to assemble them in the right organisation to mimic that tissue. Spatial organisation is integral to creating working models that are representative of the real tissue in the body ,” Dr Daly said.
He explains the other question that needs to be answered is whether or not these cells will survive the printing process. However, preliminary data suggest they do. Dr Daly says the first question many people ask him when he explains his area of research is: how do you make printable bio-materials that keep cells alive? He says that this is a very common question people have when they start to explain the creation of organs, tissue, or body parts through a 3D printer.
Dr Daly reveals that the cells used in 3D biomaterial printing are inspired by what’s already in the body. Collagen is one of the main proteins in our body; it’s the substance in our body that holds our tissues together. In this project, the team are printing the cells in collagen, which can be easily derived from various sources.
When asked what excites him most about the LifeSaver Project and the work the consortium of partners will be contributing, Dr Daly expressed that the collaboration aspect excites him the most. The way this proposal is funded enables research secondments so the people involved can get expertise from other labs.
He goes on to explain that their researchers will be travelling to three to four of the different partners to accelerate their understanding of placental cells, different types of drugs that need to be tested and how we can analyse how the cells respond to those drugs with varying types of technology.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for all these experts in different fields: statisticians, engineers, biologists, clinicians and researchers to come together and create a powerful diagnostic tool. On a personal level, I’m most excited to learn more about trophoblast response to the bio-printing process, and how they self-organise after printing in our artificial tissues“, Dr Daly explains.
Trophoblasts are the cells forming the outer layer of a blastocyst, which provides nutrients to the embryo, and develops into a large part of the placenta. They are the first cells to differentiate from the fertilised egg and are generated during the first trimester of pregnancy.
Another milestone Dr Daly will be celebrating is the arrival of the researchers who will assist him and Professor Pandit with their research and become the final members of their LifeSaver team.
“Our component of the project just began within the last month. The researchers have just started to arrive, and they’re getting trained on the basic skills needed for the work,” he added.
It’s an exciting time for the team working on this component of the LifeSaver Project. The first deliverable their work needs to meet is confirming whether the cells can be kept alive through the printing process, how much that process disrupts the cells’ behaviour and if the cells stay in the right kind of structure to mimic placental tissue. Dr Daly is hopeful his team can obtain these results in the next six to twelve months.