Researchers from the University of Minnesota have developed a 3D-printed guide device that could change the lives of patients with spinal cord injuries. The new device could enable spinal cord injury patients to regain partial function of their bodies.
The 3D-printed guide is made of silicon and is a platform for specialized cells that are then printed on top of the guide. The guide is surgically implemented onto the injured area of the spinal cord, where it acts like a bridge between the living nerve cells above and below the injury site. This method could help alleviate pain and regain some functions like muscle, bowel and bladder control.
"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, Ph.D., 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.
"This is a very exciting first step in developing a treatment to help people with spinal cord injuries," said Ann Parr, M.D., Ph.D., a co-author of the study and University of Minnesota Medical School Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery and Stem Cell Institute. "Currently, there aren't any good, precise treatments for those with long-term spinal cord injuries."
The new method was developed over two years. The researchers used new bioengineering techniques to program cells into neuronal stem cells. These cells were 3D printed onto the silicone guide. The guide then keeps cells alive and allows them to change into neurons.
A prototype guide will be surgically implemented onto the damaged part of the spinal cord and connect the living cells.
"3D printing such delicate cells was very difficult," McAlpine said. "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 percent of the cells alive during the 3D-printing process and then have them turn into healthy neurons is pretty amazing."
"We've found that relaying any signals across the injury could improve functions for the patients," Parr said. "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."
The paper on this research was published in Advanced Functional Materials.