If you think injecting ink into a printer cartridge might damage your printer, try filling it with animal cells.
That's what they're doing at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, these days. In the name of science, researchers have developed a way to print sheets of solid animal tissue by filling Hewlett-Packard and Canon inkjet cartridges with animal cells, or "bio-ink."
Using basic design software, often AutoCAD, scientists like Thomas Boland, an assistant professor of bioengineering, are designing and generating tissue that could someday save heart patients who need new cardiac tissue.
"We've created cardiac tissue successfully," Boland says. "It actually beats in the petri dish."
Boland says that just as blending primary colors results in new colors, so does printing different cells create new tissue.
The idea to use common computer printers occurred when a student was conducting a common micro-patent printing, which is done by hand. Boland realized his student was having difficulty repeating the results and the printing process was time-consuming.
"I went to the lab to see what we could use," he says. "The computer printers were printing patterns in liquid drops." That gave him the inspiration to try what he calls "protein printing."
They started by printing proteins and have moved to printing cells.
Boland admits that people thought the idea was far-fetched at first, but the more they learned about printers, the more sense it made.
"Initially, heat was the big concern, but then people learned that these printers raise the temperature by not more than 10 degrees, which is about body temperature," he says. "People either didn't understand how the printers worked, or if they understood the printers they didn't know about biology."
The group gets most of its printers from the university's surplus stock.
"We can strip them down in less than an hour, and we usually buy new cartridges. The whole thing is very cheap," he adds.
Next: New Organs?
The Clemson group says it has had success in re-creating bone tissue in mice. The scientists are now working on embryos and moving to in vitro tissue implanting--a more complicated process because of potential contamination. The group's ultimate goal is to print organs.
The scientists say that the printing could allow doctors to study, scan, and duplicate exactly what a patient needs and to develop custom treatments.
Soon, human tissue could be printed so researchers could test medications for their effect on the tissue, Boland says.
"In a couple of years this could be used on humans, after FDA approval," he says.
While Hewlett-Packard is following the scientists' research, Canon has already formed its own organ-printing project in Japan.
Boland says he is amazed at how easily the printer works and how successful the group has been. "This is not a fluke," he says. "It will come to market eventually."