Printing human organs from cellular ink

October 30, 2015

Another new technology is poised to supersede using animals in the laboratory.

The impressive field of 3D bioprinting has resulted in the creation of functional human tissues, like nerve, heart and bone, which can be used for research and numerous clinical applications.

In 3D bioprinting, viable human cells are made into “bio-ink” which is deposited in ultra-fine layers onto a biocompatible substrate, assembling into realistic, living tissue.


The ability for 3D bioprinting to provide clinical applications doesn’t need to wait until science has the ability to grow complete organs. It is already showing immense potential to change the face of medicine.

At Cornell University, Dr. Jonathan Butcher has been creating 3-D bioprinted heart valves to treat congenital heart defects. 


Made from 3D bioprinted living tissue, the heart valve has the capability to grow as the patient’s body changes, something that no other non-viable prosthetic can do. 


An artificial heart valve created with a 3-D printer.
Image credit: J. Butcher, Cornell University

Now two new major advances in 3D bioprinting promise to further enhance this exciting field of tissue generation to bring ground-breaking therapies and replace the use of animals in biomedical research.

Scientists at University of California at San Francisco are using DNA-guided 3D bioprinting to modify human cells into the “biological equivalent of LEGO bricks.” The procedure, termed DNA Programmed Assembly of Cells (DPAC) boosts 3D bioprinting production, enabling the development of thousands of lab-grown organoids in a matter of hours.

Like other lab created tissues and organoids, the UCSF team expects these can be used in animal-free drug screening and for creating whole human organs.

“There are few limits to the tissues this technology can mimic,” said Zev Gartner, PhD, the paper’s senior author and an associate professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at UCSF. “We can take any cell type we want and program just where it goes.”


A second breakthrough in 3D printing has been developed by scientists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, in collaboration with the Roslin Cellab. The team has developed a 3D printer capable of printing highly fragile, induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from a patient’s own cells.

“Pluripotent” cells have the capability to differentiate into any cell type in the body, providing unsurpassed advantages in tissue development.

“This is the first time iPS cells are successfully bioprinted without affecting their functions,” said Dr. Will Shu, one of the lead researcher on the project.

“The ability to bioprint stem cells while maintaining their pluripotency … will pave the way for producing organoids, or tissues on demand, from patient-specific cells. These could then be used for animal-free drug development and personalized medicine.”


Along with other rapidly developing technologies, 3D bioprinting is bringing us closer to the day where using animals to provide a biological substrate for experiments will be totally obsolete compared to using fully functional human tissue that accurately represents human biology.

Citizens for Alternatives to Animal Research (CAARE), is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization  established to reduce animal suffering by disseminating information about the power and progress of research without animals.  Please donate to support our mission.