Biomedical engineer Anni Mörö is part of a world-leading team of 3D biological printing researchers at Tampere University in southern Finland.
Last year Mörö - a postdoctoral biomedical engineering researcher - and her team were the first in the world to successfully "print" portions of a human cornea using 3D bioprinter technology.
The cornea is a transparent membrane that covers the eye. Millions of people around the world are affected by corneal blindness due to trauma or disease and the emerging technology may someday be able to help those afflicted, Mörö said.
Bioprinting is a fast-growing technology, and research on the topic has been moving along quickly. Researchers around the world have recently made headlines after having successfully printed human tissue like cartilage, heart muscle, and nerve tissue using bioprinters, she said.
"The number of scientific publications as well as the number of commercial firms in the industry is growing exponentially."
While her team's research is moving along, it will take years before printed cornea transplants become a medical reality, she said, noting that her team hopes to be able to print an entire cornea this year.
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"Printed tissue as such would be suitable for the treatment of some eye diseases but the replacement of an entire cornea requires additional layers of new cells. Then there are the clinical tests which are needed to ensure that the tissue is suitable for use," she explained.
Even so, Mörö said activity within the emerging 3D bioprinting industry is staggering, saying that nearly all of the tissues found in the human body can already be printed. But a good deal of research still needs to be done regarding how various tissues, blood vessels and nerves would connect to manufactured biomedical parts.
"I reckon that the first [3D printed tissues] that will be used will be simpler ones like skin, cartilage and corneas. It will take decades before printing of complex organs like the heart and liver happens," Mörö said.
However, in the meantime, 3D-printed tissues can soon be used in drug development and testing, possibly removing the need to use animals in such trials.
Stem cell tech
Three-dimensional bioprinting technology utilises similar principles and techniques as traditional 3D printing does, but instead of making objects with nylon or resins, bioprinters use stem cells and other bio materials to create biomedical body parts from scratch.
"The cells are alive but after being printed one must allow them to interact with each other to create functional tissue. This 'maturation' takes a few days," Mörö said.
Some of the stem cells Mörö and her team uses are excess embryonic cells from fertility treatment procedures. University scientists have also developed a new method to "reprogram" normal blood or skin cells into stem cells, she said.
"This opens up completely new avenues. When this kind of cell reprogramming becomes commonplace, tissue and organs can be printed from a person's own cells. In this scenario, [organ] rejection is no longer a problem," Mörö said.
The researcher explained that in the future individuals needing an organ transplant will no longer need to wait in donor queues but rather head to a medical modelling clinic to create a new organ out of their own cells, according to Mörö.