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UVa's New 3-D Bio-Printers May Soon Make Human Tissue

Three weeks ago, the University of Virginia acquired two state-of-the-art 3-D bioprinters from Switzerland. The printers will eventually print tissues that could be used to treat patients with conditions as diverse as burns to diabetes to organ failure. WMRA’s Kara Lofton reports.


At the intersection of student classrooms and the main UVA hospital, is a door behind which one can find rows of biomedical engineering labs. One is the domain of Dr. Shayn Peirce-Cottler, the UVA professor instrumental in bringing the two bioprinters to Virginia.

These printers are possibly the most advanced bioprinters in the world; there are only four total of this design in the United States. One of the bioprinters is in Peirce-Cottler’s lab. The other is at Fontaine Research Park in the lab of transplant surgeon and researcher Dr. Kenneth Brayman. Together, the printers cost the university $300,000.

A bioprinter is essentially a printer that uses cells instead of ink in its cartridges to print tissues or even organs. An eventual, long-term application could be printing custom made organs for patients using their own cells.  Pierce-Cottler explains.

SHAYN PEIRCE-COTTLER: What makes it different is that the resolution that it can print tissues in is much, much finer than the other available printers so we know that cells are pretty much on the order of 10 microns to 100 microns in size, and so our printer is able to print a few cells next to each other and then move over to another location and print some more cells so we have just a much finer resolution with this particular version of a bioprinter.

Printing organs has actually been done before - the organs just weren’t functional. The printers weren’t able to print the capillaries and other vessels small enough to allow proper blood flow. This printer has the technical capability to do that, but it may take a few years before researchers figure out how to implement the concept. Right now the lead project is learning how to print human islets, spelled I-S-L-E-T-S.

PEIRCE-COTTLER: These are clusters of cells that live in the pancreas and are responsible for producing insulin. And so the application here is really treating diabetes, or enabling a patient say with Type 1 Diabetes to essentially get a new pancreas that is capable of providing them with the insulin they need. So the challenge is to print these clumps or clusters of cells in such a way that they are able to recruit a vascular supply and when we implant them back into the patient they are able to survive and do their job of producing insulin for that diabetic patient.

Right now though, Peirce-Cottler and her students are still in the stage of figuring out exactly how the printer works. They practice using Nivea cream lotion and petroleum jelly because the two substances have a similar viscosity to the cells they will use in the future. 

Korey Marshall is an incoming medical student interning at the lab this summer. He said he spends about 8 hours a day working in the lab. By the end of the summer, he hopes to be able to print muscle tissue that will be implanted into rats. It’s research that has been ongoing at UVA for some time in other labs, but was difficult to execute without a bioprinter this precise.

KOREY MARSHALL: This machine has quite a bit of potential…I’ve learned quite a bit already as far as how the printers work, how they lay down material sort of layer by layer to create some pretty elaborate shapes and the incredible precision with which it can do that.

He showed me several shapes the summer students had designed and printed using the Nivea Cream: a shark, a castle, and a collagen-basket type structure that could be used in the future to implant cells into a patient. Designing creative structures is a fun way for students to learn the full capacity of the printer.

The printer is also drawing people to UVA who might not be there otherwise, such as a Brazilian exchange student who came to the U.S. just to work with the printer and researchers from other fields who have approached Peirce-Cottler with ideas for collaboration. It’s an exciting time, she said, with unique opportunities for both training and interdisciplinary cross-pollination.

Kara Lofton is a photojournalist based in Harrisonburg, VA. She is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and has been published by EMU, Sojourners Magazine, and The Mennonite. Her reporting for WMRA is her radio debut.