Stevens Works to Bioprint Cells, Enhance Transplant Technologies
The global demand for organ, bones and tissue transplants increases yearly — but the supply of functioning donor organs remains more or less level.
Stevens professor Robert Chang is working to change that by creating a technology that may one day help print biological structures.
Chang’s lab works to engineer cells using additive manufacturing: the process of building 3D objects layer by layer from digital designs, also known as 3D “printing.” The technology can even be used to build cells and other small, complex structures in the body.
“We are combining mechanical engineering principles with cell biology,” he explains. “When you can build a reliable manufacturing process that yields a reproducible printed component with precise architecture, and then colonize that component with stem cells, what you are basically engineering is a controlled biological response.”
Traditional 3D printing technologies can’t produce highly complex, intricate architectures, he says.
But adding electrical fields to the manufacturing process changes everything. Using melt electrospinning writing — a newer 3D printing process that produces biological substrates by dripping material onto a moving plate under high charge — Chang’s research team has been able to demonstrate promising early results. The melt electrospinning writing system has proven capable of printing cells into substrate — and that means they might function seamlessly in the body once implanted.
Chang’s lab is now collaborating with partners including MIT and France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research to develop the technology, and also working on adding AI to the process to “learn” how to better construct biological structures. One example: a data processing approach that evaluates skin-wound images to detect burn severity. By quickly mapping the deep-tissue shapes of burns, Chang believes it possible to print precise, personalized skin grafts that accelerate healing.
“In order to advance in an area like biomanufacturing, you need to be interdisciplinary,” he concludes. “You need to work with tools that supply different approaches to advance your knowledge and capabilities. We approach a research problem differently, so we can understand the problem differently, and this process becomes iterative.”