Intravital 3D bioprinting: the future of minimally invasive organ repair

Written by Katherine Gordon

Researchers have developed an innovative new technique for 3D bioprinting that utilizes a light-sensitive biogel to print new tissue directly into existing tissues and organs.

An international team of researchers based at the University of Padova (Italy) and University College London (UCL) Great Ormond Street (GOS) Institute of Child Health (UK) have developed a novel, innovative, intravital 3D bioprinting technique, that has allowed them to successfully print new muscle tissue directly into live mice.

As described in Nature Biomedical Engineering, the technique involves the use of a light-sensitive biogel that uses light treatment to print healthy tissues directly into living tissues and organs. It is hoped that this technique could open the door for the development of minimally invasive organ repair surgeries.

In the study, the researchers loaded a liquid gel with cells specific to the desired tissue and injected it into the target areas of the body. A near-infrared light was then directed at the bio-gel from outside of the body, causing the polymers to bond together and solidify the 3D structures.

These 3D structures then allowed the cells to reach their desired position and adapt to their environment, forming new tissues with their surroundings. In this way, new tissues are formed without the need for any open surgery.


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In the study, the researchers initially tested the bioprinting technique, which they named ‘Intravital 3D Printing’ or ‘i3D Bioprinting’, on the skin and the brain of the mouse. They then went onto successfully create new muscle tissue in the mouse without damaging any surrounding tissues or organs.

The findings from this study could be the first step in developing a new standard of care for individuals with organ damage, offering a minimally invasive alterative to surgery or organ transplants.

“Recent attempts at 3D bioprinting have required direct access to the tissue and space to maneuver the 3D bioprinting pen, to control how the tissue forms its shape and structure. That meant they focused on parts of the body that are easier to access, such as the skin,” remarked project lead Nicola Elvassore (UCL GOS Institute of Child Health).

“We’re really excited that our technique seems to be much more controllable in three dimensions, allowing us to accurately image in 3D the anatomical sites of interest and safely print new tissue in areas that aren’t easy to access without major surgery, like the brain.”

Furthermore, as the technique leaves no waste material and has the potential to carry healthy donor cells, the researchers believe this could specifically have important applications for the treatment of complex diseases in children, where their own cells are not always available or suitable to aid in the repair of damaged organs.

“This is an important step in repairing damaged tissue and offers the possibility of minimally invasive regeneration, which could change in the future the way we treat congenital malformations such as spina bifida and diaphragmatic hernia at GOS hospital,” explained study author Paolo De Coppi (UCL GOS Institute of Child Health).

“We still have plenty of work to do before we can safely use this approach with patients, but the pre-clinical findings are promising.”

Sources: Urciuolo A, Poli I, Brandolino L et al. Intravital three-dimensional bioprinting. Nat. Biomed. Eng. doi:10.1038/s41551-020-0568-z (2020) (epub ahead of print); www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2020/jun/healthy-new-tissue-can-be-printed-using-innovative-technique