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Breakthrough in 3D-Printing Stem Cells could Lead to Patient-Specific Drug Screening

Posted October 22, 2015

A research team at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, led by Dr. Will Shu from the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPS), are ushering a new breakthrough in printing three-dimensional stem cells (or more exactly – their  structures) that could lead to individually-tailored drug testing regimes and reduce the need for live animal testing.

New advance in 3D-printing stem cells brings researchers one step closer to personalised medicine. Image credit: Juliacdrd via, CC0 Public Domain.

New advance in 3D-printing stem cells brings researchers one step closer to personalised medicine. Image credit: Juliacdrd via, CC0 Public Domain.

The team was the first to develop a delicate, valve-based 3D printer, capable of working with lab-grown stem cells derived from embryonic stem cells acquired generations ago.

Now, working in collaboration with Roslin Cellab, a Scottish research and development company that assists in making products for the stem cell sector, Shu‘s team has refined their printer, enabling it to 3D-print the so-called “induced pluripotent stem cells” (iPSCs) derived from a donor’s own adult cells, which are even more delicate than the lab-grown variety.

Detailing the new printer in a paper published by the IOP journal Biofabrication, the authors claim they were able to print stem cells in three dimensions without affecting their ability to transform into a wide range of cell types.

For now, the team hopes to harness the new technique for making miniature 3D human tissues to be used in general testing of pharmaceutical drugs, which they hope will decrease the need for animal models that are currently indispensable. If this succeeds, specifically made tissue from each patient would enable doctors to prescribe drugs that are most likely to work and least likely to cause any side effects.

Shu claims this is the first study to demonstrate that human induced pluripotent stem cells can be bioprinted without any negative effects on their biological functions, which they proved by turning the printed stem cells into liver cells.

“The ability to bioprint stem cells while either maintaining their pluripotency, their ability to develop into all types of cells in the body, or indeed directing their differentiation into specific cell types, will pave the way for producing organoids, or tissues on demand, from patient specific cells. These could then be used for animal-free drug development and personalised medicine.”

Dr. Jason King of the Roslin Cellab, who’s also involved in establishing the new European Bank for Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (EBiSC), stated the new technique could help tissue engineers create new human disease models. This is already being done with some success for heart diseases and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.


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