The Polish scientists of the Foundation for Research and Science Development (BIRN) were the first in the world to 3D-print a pancreas along with its blood vessels.
“No one before has ever produced a parenchymatous organ with all of its blood vessels,” stressed the head of the enterprise professor Michał Wszoła of the BIRN.
The 3D-printed pancreas consists solely of pancreatic islets and is not meant to serve the exocrine function of a real equivalent. However, it can help bring back insulin production in diabetic patients. Currently, this can be achieved only by injections of insulin into a sick individual’s body.
“A human pancreas produces pancreatic juices that help the digestion. Approximately a million pancreatic islets, which look like small spheres consisting of alpha and beta cells, produce insulin and glucagon. Diabetics have their islets damaged and so they also lack the cells producing insulin and glucagon. [Those people’s pancreas] produce only pancreatic juices. That is why they need to take insulin injections. We decided to create an organ that will produce insulin and glucagon based on alpha and beta cells,” said Prof Wszoła.
In order to create the bionic pancreas, the scientists collected animal pancreatic cells and mixed them with bio-ink, which is a substance that helps the alpha and beta cells survive. A 3D-printer arranged them in a bioreactor according to a computer-designed pattern. Simultaneously, using another syringe, blood vessels were printed.
“Once the pancreas have been printed, we were not concerned with whether it looked natural at all. We realised our capability to print a 1-1.5 cm long organ and came to understand that it has to have a dense enough blood vessel network so that all islets are supplied with glucose and oxygen,” said professor Wszoła.
Parts of the 3D-printed pancreas will be implanted into mice in April 2019. In October 2019, larger parts of the pancreas together with blood vessels will be implanted into pigs.
The Polish research drew the attention of the founders of Cellink company, which is a global pioneer in the field of 3D bio-printing. Erik Gatenholm and Hector Martinez visited the BIRN laboratory on March 14 and took part in a charitable auction of images of the bionic pancreas.