3D printing technology has been improving exponentially and it was just a couple of months ago we wrote about its medical applications. In a recent report published in the journal “Advanced Functional Materials”, it has been reported that a research team led by Michael McAlpine a mechanical engineering professor of University of Minnesota has developed 3D printed nerves which can be customised and regenerated on requirement basis.
What makes this nerve generation process special is that these regenerated nerves are capable of motor as well as sensory functions. The nerves have been printed using silicon and a 3D printed guide. Apart from Michael McAlpine from University of Minnesota who led the team; the research team comprised of members from several universities including Princeton University, Virginia Tech, John Hopkins University and University of Maryland.
The research team generated silicon nerves for rates and used the process that is similar to reverse engineering. They severed nerves from rats and further created a guide to regenerate nerves and grafted it to the ends from which these were severed. The regeneration of nerves using this technology is quite complicated and requires a very high level of customisation to ensure that the generated nerve matches the inherent properties of the nerve it is supposed to replace. These properties include the shape, size, anatomy and geometrical structure of the original nerve. It is also very critical that the regenerated nerve must match the edges of the existing nerves to which it will be attached.
After an intense observation of the rats for 10 to 12 weeks, the researchers concluded that the implanted nerves have been functioning efficiently. The 3D printed nerves have tremendous applications. Not only these nerves act as the conduit between natural nerves by allowing blood to flow through them, these nerves also include several of the functions of natural nerves such as sensory functions and motor functions.
Despite the advances in the technology, the 3D printing of nerves still remain a complex procedure. The research lead McApline stated that the nerves regenerated by his team is indeed a breakthrough and although scientists have in the past generated nerves using 3D printing methods, these nerves had very simple linear structures. The nerve generated by McAlpine’s team is a more complex “Y” shaped sciatic nerve that is capable of complex biological functions.
Though the researchers have been successful in animal trials, human trials might take time. However, if this technology can successfully been implemented, it will not be long before we might see 3D printers in hospital for generating artificial organs including nerves. The long term efficiency of these nerves is still to be monitored but it is indeed a giant leap for those suffering from neural disorders and presents a ray of hope for such patients.