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The future of 3D printing? Inside your body.


It’s an idea so big, it’s hard to believe the result measures only millimeters across.

As the fields of 3D printing, tissue engineering and robotic, minimally invasive surgery are pushing the boundaries of technology, researchers at Ohio State are taking those ideas even further to help save lives.

How? They’re developing a device they hope will enable robotic surgery equipment to print living cells or bones — and maybe someday even organs — inside people’s bodies during surgery.

Yes, inside bodies.

David Hoelzle, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is spearheading the effort in partnership with Dr. Desmond D’Souza, a surgeon at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute.

Minimally invasive surgery: a growing trend

Using cells to grow skin or organs, known as tissue engineering, has the obvious advantage that people in dire need of transplanted tissue can get it without long waiting lists for a match who can give up a kidney or donate a lung or heart posthumously.

Tissue engineering sounds like science fiction, and while both Hoelzle and D’Souza noted that fresh-grown complex organs are still years away, they pointed to recent breakthroughs, including researchers who have successfully created tracheas for transplant. D’Souza said right now the field is “shooting for simple stuff like muscle, tendon, meshes” simple when compared to a kidney, anyway.  

Meanwhile, there’s growing demand for robotic minimally invasive surgery. It has lots of advantages: Incisions are smaller, there’s less pain, and people can get back to work faster afterward, D’Souza said.

For patients battling cancer, it could be a lifesaver. After traditional cancer surgery, patients sometimes can’t tolerate chemotherapy or radiation, D’Souza said. Minimally invasive surgery can help them come through with enough strength for further treatment.

“The way surgery is going, if you’re not on the minimally invasive bandwagon … you’ll be obsolete in 10 years,” he said.

There are people working on 3D printing tissue, but as of now, they have to print it outside the body, then implant it with an operation or open the person up to print it at the site needed. That’s doesn’t gel well with the minimally invasive trend, D’Souza said.  

“What if you could marry 3D biologic printing and robotic surgery, where you have the best of both worlds, where you have real-time 3D printing within the patient, and you could still maintain a minimally invasive robotic technique?” he asked.

That’s a really big what if, but they’re making hopeful progress.

A partnership of engineer and surgeon

Hoelzle has been working for several years on the project, researching the best materials for printing tissue and developing a printing attachment that hospitals can use on their existing robotic surgery equipment.

That’s where D’Souza comes in. He already does robotic surgery, so he can advise Hoelzle and his team and answer questions as needed. The team also collaborates with UCLA’s Ali Khademhosseini, who provides biomaterial.

A prototype tool is being built at Ohio State now, Hoelzle said, and once it’s done, they’ll need to refine it. The goal is for the tool to be compatible with a variety of robotic systems as more companies develop new ones and market them.

Once they’ve refined the printer, they’ll need to demonstrate it in a surgical simulator which involves pig organs and simulated blood flow then move on to animal testing and someday to human testing.

That will take both time and a lot of money, especially for animal testing with the need for a veterinarian to be involved.  

Hoelzle’s team has won grants from the National Science Foundation, but eventually will need a sizeable private investment, he said.

The good news is they don’t need their tool to be capable of printing out, say, a new lung in order to change surgery for the better. Initially, they want to simply augment the robotic surgeries that are already going on helping, for example, hernia patients regenerate new tissue and heal faster.

And they’re keeping an eye on that science fiction future, Hoelzle said, trying to develop biologic materials that will work in three dimensions like those that will be one day be required to print organs or limbs.

“The possibilities,” D’Souza said, “are endless.”