A research team from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) is exploring the use of 3D printing to control stem cell differentiation in embryoid bodies. Specifically, they have used bioprinting to transform stem cells into heart cells – a process known as differentiation.
Humans, and all animals, begin as a single cell, which divides and multiplies to form new cells. Eventually these cells, called stem cells, begin to differentiate, forming different tissues and organs. This fact of life has inspired a whole area of medicine, called regenerative medicine, which seeks to control the differentiation of cells to grow human tissues and organs in the lab.
Researchers working in regenerative medicine have found a number of ways to differentiate stem cells. One of these methods relies on the use of chemical stimulators. This method is well suited for creating a single type of cell, which limits its applications. For instance, it is not able to reproduce organs, which are complex and made up of several cell types.
Another approach, which more closely mimics the natural cell development process, consists of placing stem cells into small cellular aggregates called embryoid bodies. These are not unlike real embryos in that they enable differentiation using a cell-cell interaction. One of the challenges with this technique, however, is that scientists have up until now been unable to control the parameters in embryoid bodies that influence what types of cells are produced.
The SUTD research team therefore set out to overcome this challenge by using 3D printing to control stem cell differentiation in embryoid bodies. The study, recently published in the journal Bioprinting, details how the team 3D bioprinted a number of micro-scaled physical devices with specific geometries and used them to achieve precision in the directed differentiation of stem cells through the formation of embryoid bodies. Specifically, AM enabled them to regulate the parameters of the embryoid bodies to create cardiomyocytes, the cells that make up the heart muscle.
“The field of additive manufacturing is evolving at an unrivaled pace,” explained principal investigator Assistant Professor Javier G. Fernandez from SUTD. “We are seeing levels of precision, speed and cost that were inconceivable just a few years ago. What we have demonstrated is that 3D printing has now reached the point of geometrical accuracy where it is able to control the outcome of stem cell differentiation. And in doing so, we are propelling regenerative medicine to further advance alongside the accelerated rate of the additive manufacturing industry.”
Rupambika Das, PhD student from SUTD and first author of the study, added: “The use of 3D printing in biology has been strongly focused on the printing of artificial tissues using cell laden cells, to build artificial organs ‘piece by piece’. Now, we have demonstrated that 3D printing has the potential for it to be used in a bio-inspired approach in which we can control cells to grow in a lab just as they grow in vivo.”