Groundbreaking 3D-printed medical device could benefit patients with spinal-cord injuries

A 3D-printed silicone guide upon which neuronal stem cells are also printed could one day help patients with long-term spinal cord injuries. The device would be surgically implanted into the injured area of the spinal cord where it serves as a type of bridge between living nerve cells above and below the area of injury. The hope is that this would alleviate pain as well as help patients regain some functions like control of muscles, bowel and bladder, according to engineers and medical researchers at the University of Minnesota who teamed up to create the groundbreaking device. The research was published online this week in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Advanced Functional Materials.

3D-printed implantable device could help patients with spinal cord injuries
Neuronal stem cells derived from adult human cells are 3D printed on a silicone guide, and the cells are differentiated into active nerve cells in the lab. Image courtesy University of Minnesota.

“This is the first time anyone has been able to directly 3D print neuronal stem cells derived from adult human cells on a 3D-printed guide and have the cells differentiate into active nerve cells in the lab,” said Michael McAlpine, PhD, a co-author of the study and University of Minnesota Benjamin Mayhugh Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the University’s College of Science and Engineering.

Currently, approximately 285,000 people in the United States suffer from spinal cord injuries, with about 17,000 new spinal cord injuries reported nationwide each year, according to a press release published on the university’s website.

The new bioengineering process has been developed at the University of Minnesota over the last two years. Researchers start with any kind of cells from an adult, such as skin or blood cells, and re-program them into neuronal stem cells. The cells are printed onto a silicone guide using a unique 3D-printing technology—the same 3D printer is used to print both the guide and the cells. The guide keeps the cells alive and allows them to change into neurons. The team developed a prototype guide that could be surgically implanted in the damaged part of the spinal cord and help connect living cells on each side of the injury.

“3D printing such delicate cells was very difficult,” McAlpine said in the news release. “The hard part is keeping the cells happy and alive. We tested several different recipes in the printing process. The fact that we were able to keep about 75% of the cells alive during the 3D-printing process and then have them turn into healthy neurons is pretty amazing.”

If the next steps are successful, the payoff for this research could be life changing for those who suffer from spinal cord injuries.

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“We’ve found that relaying any signals across the injury could improve functions for the patients,” said Ann Parr, MD, PhD, a co-author of the study and University of Minnesota Medical School Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery and Stem Cell Institute. “There’s a perception that people with spinal cord injuries will only be happy if they can walk again. In reality, most want simple things like bladder control or to be able to stop uncontrollable movements of their legs. These simple improvements in function could greatly improve their lives.”

It will be several years before this technology improves lives, however: The device first must be tested in animals and then go through human clinical trials.

You can read the full research paper, “3D Printed Stem-Cell Derived Neural Progenitors Generate Spinal Cord Scaffolds,” here.

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