Bioprinting could treat cancers

A U researcher is using the technology to make organs.

Ryan Faircloth

A University of Minnesota pediatrics professor is printing off pieces of organs in hopes they’ll help treat cancer.
Angela Panoskaltsis-Mortari, who specializes in blood and marrow transplantation, has been working with a Biobots bioprinter — one of only 20 in the world — to create a piece of esophagus out of human cells. Researchers hope to use printed organs in transplant patients, but they have to create a high-resolution product before human trials can begin.
The bioprinter uses a water-based gel made of cells and other natural materials and pushes it through a specially shaped nozzle, Panoskaltsis-Mortari said, after which it’s solidified into a rubbery material.
“The bioprinter works just like a 3-D printer that prints plastics, but it’s using biological materials and cells,” she said.
Though Panoskaltsis-Mortari’s research uses cell-less gel now, it will need to utilize cells specific to a person when making an organ so the patient’s body won’t reject the new tissue, she said.
Panoskaltsis-Mortari’s first project will print a piece of esophagus to transplant into a pig, which she said she hopes to complete by the end of the year. The transplant will test whether or not the cells can survive on the organ.
Doctors operating on patients with esophageal cancer remove part of the esophagus and stretch the stomach, attaching the stomach to the remaining esophagus, which can cause negative side effects like lifelong acid reflux, said University of Minnesota Medical Center thoracic surgeon Dr. Rafael Andrade.
“[The bioprinter] will allow for quicker access for patients to get treatment that would normally require an organ donation,” Panoskaltsis-Mortari said. “But secondly, it’s a new strategy to be used for repairing certain defects or problems that a patient is having that need to be repaired surgically.”
Panoskaltsis-Mortari said she hopes bioprinting will lead to fewer rejected organ transplants as the technology becomes more popular, and she hopes her research will help burn victims in addition to esophageal cancer patients.
Researchers worldwide have experimented with bioprinting skin for skin grafts, she said, by printing cells directly onto the patient’s skin.
“It’s really like science fiction,” Panoskaltsis-Mortari said.
But until researchers can print organs with a high resolution, the product won’t survive as a transplant, biomedical engineering associate professor Brenda Ogle said.
“Resolution that appeals to cells is difficult,” she said.
Despite the challenges, Ogle said she believes bioprinting could be the future of transplant surgery. 
“The risk is no greater than existing cellular transplant procedures,” Ogle said.