Life in 3d: Printers Could Save Lives

by Laurence Sauvé
Staff Writer

An outstanding discovery that could save over 4,000 Americans in need of heart transplant could be underway. A group at Carnegie Mellon have been experimenting with 3D printing, and it looks like the lack of donors could no longer be an issue.

The classic well-known 3D printers have been trending for the past decade for various types of uses and has been available to the public for purchase. Made out of metal or plastic, these 3D printers build hard objects by working on a layer-by-layer surface that is deposited to create the object desired. But for each step towards the final product to have steady support, the material needs to be durable, substantial and safe, making tissue engineering restrictive because gel is the main component. “We’ve been able to take MRI images of coronary arteries and 3D images of embryonic hearts, then 3D bioprint them with unprecedented resolution and quality out of very soft materials like collagens, alginates and fibrins,” said Adam Feinberg, an associate professor of Materials Science, Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and leader of the Regenerative Biomaterials and Therapeutics Group ( This is the first time bringing together collagen or fibrin; common tissue engineering gels are developed as a method for furthering the future of organ transplants.

3d printing

This all began when Adam Feinburg went to run errands at the market and got gelatin supplies along with a 3D printer. He, alongside his coworkers, wanted to explore how to synthesize human body tissue through a way that was not too expensive. His team started by composing structural duplicates of different types of organs such as arteries and brains, but quickly realized using such smooth and mushy material posed a challenge. But his new Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogel (FRESH) technique solved the problem. His idea was basically to have one gel inside another type of gel that washes away to support the first gel used. Feinburg thinks that by using water at body temperature, there would be no detriment to sensitive biological molecules or bio printed healthy, active cells because it would be quickly cleaned. Already being a step ahead of science, all that’s left is for the 3D printed models to have real human heart cells in order to attain a more authentic result and provide a stage to help contract the muscle.

Bioprinting is a growing field, but to date, most 3D bioprinters have cost over $100,000 and/or require specialized expertise to operate, limiting wider-spread adoption. Feinberg’s group, however, has been able to implement their technique on a range of consumer-level 3D printers, which cost less than $1,000 by utilizing open-source hardware and software. “Not only is the cost low, but by using open-source software, we have access to fine-tune the print parameters, optimize what we’re doing and maximize the quality of what we’re printing,” Feinberg said. “It has really enabled us to accelerate development of new materials and innovate in this space. And we are also contributing back by releasing our 3D printer designs under an open-source license” (

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