Students replicate body parts in 3D-printing course

Side-by-side photos of Karaman and Katz sitting in a lab next to a 3D printer, with Katz holding up a tube of red bioink.
(L-R) Teaching assistant Dmitri Karaman and fourth-year engineering student Tal Katz enjoyed participating in BME 401 during the fall 2020 term.

2021 January – A UVic engineering course is giving students the chance to delve into one of the most fascinating and promising areas for the future of medicine: 3D bioprinting.

Bioprinting: 3D Printing Body Parts teaches students how 3D-printing technology can deliver individualized treatments for a wide range of conditions, from printed prosthetics and implants to bioprinted tissues, organs and bones.

A close-up of three small, white 3D shapes sitting in a petri dish and covered in a transparent jelly.-like substance.
One team printed ear parts from bioink that was selected for its compatibility with cells from that part of the body.

The fourth-year course culminates in a project in which small student teams focus on a client whose needs could be addressed through bioprinting. Their solutions involve replicating or treating a part of the human body using a 3D printer and “bioink,” a substance made of natural or synthetic components that are compatible with living cells.

Last term, 35 students worked on projects that included: ear parts designed to correct deformities; breast tissue that could act as a living implant following a mastectomy; a nose-shaped bandage to deliver medication to skin cancer; and a replacement for a deteriorating heart valve.

“3D printing is a rapidly growing field and the possibilities within healthcare are almost endless,” said Dmitri Karaman, the course TA. “3D bioprinting is still in its early stages, but there’s an enormous amount of research and testing that’s already happening.”

In recent years, 3D bioprinting has become a leading area of the 3D-printing industry and is expected to have an increasing impact on medical applications. Currently, bioprinting is mostly being used to test drugs and repair damaged joints and ligaments, but someday it’s hoped that the technology will be able to replace a human organ.

During the UVic course, students learn about the major steps in bioprinting a 3D structure, the ethical and regulatory issues involved, materials that can be used in bioprinting, and areas of the body where certain diseases or injuries often cause problems.

Stephanie Willerth, the professor who teaches the course, said she was impressed with the high level of engineering analysis that went into the students’ designs.

“This course shows the ways 3D printing and 3D bioprinting are revolutionizing medical treatments and, by the end of the course, these students have gained skills they can use in the biotech industry,” said Willerth.

Once the student teams selected a medical condition to address, the required bioinks were ordered from Cellink, a U.S.-based company that also developed the 3D printers used in Willerth’s lab. Different bioinks are used for different applications and could include, for example, alginate from seaweed, cellulose from plants, or gelatin from pig hide, as well as various fillers and thickeners. The bioink, which mustbe compatible with the cells it is treating,is deposited by the 3D printer in a series of layers to create the final model.

Fourth-year Mechanical Engineering student Tal Katz was on the team that developed living breast tissue implants that could be used by mastectomy patients. Because he was also working on co-op as a scientific lab assistant, Katz was able to do his team’s 3D printing in person. (COVID restrictions required other teams to send their specifications to be printed by a lab technician.)

Katz had gained previous 3D-printing experience a few months earlier during a summer co-op in which he printed face shields as part of Willerth’s COVID-19 response team. Inspired by Willerth’s energy and approach, he decided to enrol in BME 401.

“I had such a great learning experience in this course and I hope to find a way to keep working on the research I was doing in class,” said Katz, whose team of three was the only group to develop their own customized bioink.

Interestingly, Karaman, the course TA, is a fourth-year Computer Science student, who was given special permission to take the same engineering course in 2019 because of his keen interest and experience in 3D printing. He also completed a directed study under Willerth and worked in her lab.

“My experiences in the Willerth Lab and my interest in bioprinting started with this course,” he said. “It’s great to see that other students have had a similar experience, finding a new passionthey want to pursue past the end of the course.”

2021Jan12 AT