Medical & Dental

Introducing the 3D bioprinted neural tissues with the potential to ‘cure’ human paralysis

Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and University of Science and Technology of China have devised a novel bioprinting-based method of curing previously untreatable spinal cord injuries. 

Using a custom bio-ink, the Chinese team have managed to 3D bioprint neural stem cell-loaded tissues capable of carrying instructions via impulses from the brain, much like those seen in living organisms. Once implanted into disabled rats, the scaffolds have shown the ability to restore movement in paralyzed limbs, and the scientists now believe their approach could find human applications in future. 

“There is no known effective cure for spinal cord injury,” Zhijun Zhang, a nanobiomedical engineer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the Scientist. “The 3D bioprinting strategy we’ve developed, may represent a general and versatile strategy for rapid and precise engineering of the central nervous system (CNS), and other neuronal tissues for regenerative medicine.”

A schematic showing the scientists' 3D bioprinting and implantation process.
The scientists’ novel 3D bioprinting and implantation process. Image via the Biomaterials journal.

The ‘SCI’ injury conundrum 

A Spinal Cord Injury or ‘SCI’ is a blanket term used to describe any damage caused to the bundle of cells and nerves that send signals to and from the brain along the human spinal cord. While the damage itself can be caused either by direct injury, or from bruising to the surrounding vertebrae, the result is often the same: a partial or complete loss of sensory and locomotor function below the affected area. 

While there’s no current known cure for SCI, a number of promising cell-based therapies are now being developed, with the regeneration of functional neurons seen as central to their future success. In effect, such approaches involve re-establishing links between neurons throughout the injured area in order to restore nerve functionality, but repairing damaged cells continues to be problematic. 

Where neural stem cells have previously been implanted into SCI sites, they’ve also shown poor viability and uncontrolled differentiation, leading to low therapeutic efficacy. More recent efforts have seen scientists bioprint cell-loaded scaffolds, capable of creating a suitable microenvironment in which neurons can flourish, yet this has raised further issues around printability and initiating cellular interaction. 

To get around these problems, the Chinese researchers have now developed a novel bio-ink that gels together at body temperature to prevent neurons from differentiating into cells that don’t produce electrical impulses, and can be 3D bioprinted into scaffolds that not only mimic the white matter appearance of the spine, but encourage cell-to-cell interactions. 

A gif of the researchers' neural tissues being 3D bioprinted.
A gif of the researchers’ neural tissues being 3D bioprinted into 3D layers. Gif via the Biomaterials journal.

A paralysis cure in-action 

To begin with, Zhang and his team formulated their bio-ink from natural chitosan sugars, as well as a mixture of hyaluronic acids and matrigel, before combining them with rat neural stem cells. The scientists then used a BioScaffolder 3D bioprinter to deposit the resulting concoction into cell-laden scaffolds, which were later stored in culture plates for further testing. 

Prior to their implantation, the team’s different samples were incubated for three, five and seven days respectively, during which they proliferated and formed connections. Interestingly though, the researchers found that the higher the concentration of hyaluronic acid, the lower levels of interaction they observed, showing that their bio-ink can be tweaked to achieve desired tissue characteristics. 

When injected into paraplegic lab rats, the scaffolds exhibited a cell viability of 95% while promoting neuron regeneration to the point that they enabled the rats to regain control over their hind legs. Over a 12-week observation period, the treated animals also showed a revived ability to move their hips, knees and ankles without support, and kick pressure sensors with “markedly enhanced muscle strength.”

As a result, the scientists have concluded that their approach “offers a versatile and powerful platform for building precisely-controlled complex neural tissues” with potential human applications, although they concede that more precise regulation of cell differentiation will be needed to achieve this, in addition to further testing on more clinically-relevant injury models. 

“Overall, this study clearly demonstrated for the first time the feasibility of the 3D bioprinted neural stem cell-laden scaffolds for SCI repair in-vivo,” concluded the team in their paper, “which, we expect, may move toward clinical applications in the neural tissue engineering, such as SCI and other regenerative medicine fields in the near future.”

3D bioprinting in CNS treatments

Thanks to constant advances in flexible electronics and 3D bioprinting technologies, it’s now becoming increasingly possible to produce neural implants, with the potential to treat complex CNS injuries. Last year, a project started at TU Dresden led to the creation of 3D printed neural implants, capable of linking the human brain to computers as a means of treating neurological conditions such as paralysis. 

In a similar study, engineering firm Renishaw has worked with pharmaceuticals expert Herantis Pharma to assess the performance of its 3D printed neuroinfuse drug delivery device. Designed to deliver intermittent infusions into the parenchyma, an organ’s functional tissue, the platform could be used as a future treatment for Parkinson’s disease.

With regards to treating spinal injuries specifically, researchers at the University of California San Diego have also managed to repair spinal cord injuries in rats. By implanting 3D printed two-millimeter-wide grafts into test subjects, the team have been able to facilitate neural stem cell growth, restore nerve connections and ultimately help recover limb functionality in rodent test subjects. 

The researchers’ findings are detailed in their paper titled “3D bioprinted neural tissue constructs for spinal cord injury repair.” The study was co-authored by Xiaoyun Liu, Mingming Hao, Zhongjin Chen, Ting Zhang, Jie Huang, Jianwu Dai and Zhijun Zhang. 

The nominations for the 2021 3D Printing Industry Awards are now open. Who do you think should make the shortlists for this year’s show? Have your say now. 

To stay up to date with the latest 3D printing news, don’t forget to subscribe to the 3D Printing Industry newsletter or follow us on Twitter or liking our page on Facebook.

For a deeper-dive into additive manufacturing, you can now subscribe to our Youtube channel, featuring discussion, de-briefs and shots of 3D printing in-action.

Are you looking for a job in the additive manufacturing industry? Visit 3D Printing Jobs for a selection of roles in the industry.

Featured image shows the researchers’ 3D bioprinted scaffolds after 7 and 21 days culturing. Images via the Biomaterials journal.