Scientists in Israel have created the world's first 3D printed heart using a patient's own biological materials.
Although researchers have previously managed to 3D print the structure of the heart this is the first time it has been done with cells and blood vessels.
The breakthrough was announced by a team at Tel Aviv University.
"This is the first time that a whole cellular heart with blood vessels is printed," said Professor Tal Dvir who led the project. "Another major breakthrough is that it is printed from the materials of the patient itself".
To make the heart a biopsy of fatty tissue was taken from patients and cellular and a-cellular materials were separated. The cells were reprogrammed to become pluripotent stem cells (cells that have the potential to become any cell) while an extracellular matrix was processed into a personalized gel that would become the printing 'ink'.
After being mixed with the hydrogel the pluripotent cells differentiated to either cardiac or endothelial cells to ultimately become the heart and its blood vessels.
The heart is about the size of a rabbit's, and while this is a major milestone in medical research the team from Tel Aviv say there is a long way to go before 3D printed hearts are transplanted into human patients. Among the many challenges are to get the printed version to behave like a real one.
"We need to develop the printed heart further," added Prof Dvir. "The cells need to form a pumping ability; they can currently contract, but we need them to work together. Our hope is that we will succeed and prove our method's efficacy and usefulness."
Details of the team’s research were published on April 15 in a study in Advanced Science.