New 3D-printed device could help treat spinal cord injuries

Aug. 10, 2018

University of Minnesota researchers have broken new ground in the rapidly advancing field of 3-D printing: Creating stem cell-infused scaffolds that could be implanted in spinal cords to repair nerve damage.

The technology has existed for years to print plastic implants containing live cells. But the challenge was to do so in a way that would allow sensitive “neuronal” stem cells to survive the printing process so they can repair nerve damage after transplant.

The team on Aug. 9 reported a printing approach that allowed for 75% survival of neural progenitor cells, which are limited stem cells capable of producing brain cells. Results were published in Advanced Functional Materials. A university video demonstrates how the soft rubbery scaffold could be printed in layers along with hydrogel, a special ink that coats and preserves the stem cells.

Use of the technology in regenerative medicine for human patients remains some years away: The printed scaffolds have to be tested in animals to see if they repair spinal cord damage, and then human tests would follow.

The discovery is one in a series involving 3-D printing, which was initially used in healthcare to create models for surgery practice, but now is being studied for the creation of everything from skin grafts to solid organs for transplant.

U of M engineers also were among the first, three years ago, to report success in printing scaffolds that could be implanted in peripheral nerves to guide their repair and regrowth.

Roughly 17,000 spinal cord injuries are reported in the U.S. each year. Even if this 3-D printing approach could restore only limited function, it would be a significant advance.

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