Glenn Beck has spoken a lot of late about the future of 3D printing and its potential to, as futurist Ray Kurzweil puts it, lead us to the “Singularity” where people are augmenting their body with technology and computers that exceed human intelligence.

We’ve already seen 3D printers create everything from custom prosthetics to bones, but new research has created the first 3D-printed human embryonic stem cells.

Heriot Watt University Creates 3D Printed Embryonic Stem Cells

(Photo: Heriot-Watt University)

Scottish researchers at Heriot-Watt University in partnership with the stem cell company Roslin Cellab used the cells as “ink” and printed them in a pattern that allowed them to remain viable and pluripotent, which is type of cell that has the potential to differentiate into any other type of cell. The researchers believe is the first step to creating 3D-printed organs.

According to the university website, the team led by Dr. Will Shu developed a valve-based printing technique that allowed them to print the delicate cell cultures. Popular Science explained how this worked:

The team took stem cells from an embryonic kidney and from a well-studied embryonic cell line, and grew them in culture. They had to build a custom reservoir–let’s call it an inkwell–to safely house the delicate cells, and then they added some large-diameter nozzles. A pressurized air supply pumps the cells from the inkwell into the valves, which contain pressurized nozzles on the end. The team could control the amount of cells dispensed by changing any of the factors, including the pneumatic pressure, nozzle diameter or length of time the nozzle stayed open.

At first the researchers printed droplets, but ultimately, they were so precise that they made cell spheroids in a variety of shapes and sizes, like the university logo above. One interesting wrinkle: The cells also formed spheroids in the inkwells. More work needs to be done to explain that.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that these cells have been 3D printed. The technique will allow us to create more accurate human tissue models which are essential to in vitro drug development and toxicity-testing. Since the majority of drug discovery is targeting human disease, it makes sense to use human tissues,” Shu said, according to the university. “In the longer term, we envisage the technology being further developed to create viable 3D organs for medical implantation from a patient’s own cells, eliminating the need for organ donation, immune suppression and the problem of transplant rejection.”

The research published in the journal Biofabrication stated that 99 percent of the stem cells remained viable, suggesting the printing process did not harm them.


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