The prototype cells itself.
Scientists in Australia have developed a flexible soft robotic arm that 3D-prints cells onto organs, thereby circumventing many of the risks associated with surgery. A beta version of the revolutionary tech was described last month in the journal Advanced Science.
“Our flexible 3D bioprinter means biomaterials can be directly delivered into the target tissue or organs with a minimally invasive approach,” Dr. Thanh Nho Do, lead researcher and a biomedical engineer at the University of New South Wales, said Tuesday in a news release.
Dubbed F3DB, the small, flexible arm is outfitted with a swiveling nozzle that prints bio-ink — polymer-based materials used to engineer live tissue. Hydraulics allow the arm to bend and twist, while controllers adjust the stiffness using elastic tubes. Best of all, each component is operated externally.
Its maneuverability and size allows the device to be inserted like an endoscope into hard-to-reach incisions and orifices, such as the rectum.
“This system offers the potential for the precise reconstruction of three-dimensional wounds inside the body, such as gastric wall injuries or damage and disease inside the colon,” Do said.
Footage shows the bot being inserted into a model rectum, whereupon it snakes its way through the intestines before dispensing bio-ink onto the targeted area.
Thanks to this surgical precision, doctors can potentially bypass many of the dangers associated with existing 3D bioprinting techniques, which “require biomaterials to be made outside the body,” Do explained. “Implanting that into a person would usually require large open-field open surgery, which increases infection risks.”
He added that the device could also mitigate “mismatches between 3D-printed biomaterials and target tissues/organs,” as well as structural damage during handling and transport.
Sound like a sci-fi-inspired pipe dream? Not to fear, scientists say they have successfully battle-tested the prototype inside an artificial colon. They also 3D-printed a smorgasbord of different-shaped materials onto the surface of a pig’s kidney like a high-tech Play-Doh extruder.
3D printing isn’t F3DB’s only function. Like a surgical Swiss Army Knife, the endoscopic bot can reportedly do everything from snipping cancerous lesions to cleaning blood and excess tissue from the site — capabilities also tested on the pig’s intestine.
In addition, the medical marvel can foster faster healing by simultaneously reinforcing the region with biomaterial a la an organic Band-Aid.
“The developed F3DB was designed as an all-in-one endoscopic tool that avoids the use of changeable tools which are normally associated with longer procedural time and infection risks,” said Mai Thanh Thai, a UNSW Ph.D. student who collaborated on the study.
Researchers are working on even more nifty features, including an integrated camera and scanner that would allow operators to print the necessary tissues in real time, SWNS reports. Meanwhile, the next phase for the bot involves a dry run on live animals to determine its practical applications.
With further fine-tuning, F3DB could be available to medical professionals in five to seven years, according to the researchers.
The scientists aim to revolutionize bioprinting and support the future development of advanced endoscopic surgical robots.
And while machines are being used to improve human body function, the opposite is true as well. Last month, Maryland researchers unveiled a plan to enhance a computer’s capacity for memory and learning by injecting it with replicas of human brain cells.