How 3D Printing Provides New Hope for Spinal Cord Patients

Spinal cord injuries are severe. Approximately 300,000 Americans suffer from these injuries, with about 18,000 new occurrences each year. There's often little hope for these patients to regain their mobility and use of their limbs. However, a new technique that helps nerve cells bridge the damage by growing through a scaffolding structure might one day change that.

Dr. Mark Tuszynski, director of the Center for Neural Repair at the University of California, San Diego and a neurologist at the San Diego VA Center, has conducted research on using bioengineered fabricated structures to help the nerve structure. The method helps nerve cells to grow and actually repair the damage.

Success with Lab Rats

3D bioprinting experts in Chen’s lab partnered with neural stem cell biology experts in Tuszynski's UCSD’s lab. So far, the innovation has been used in rats. Though the creation did not return the rats back to full functionality, they were able to move their limbs in a responsive and useful way. One month after implantation, rats that received the scaffolds showed reduced inflammation at the site of injury. The researchers also saw a large number of new nerve cells growing in the correct directions through the scaffolds.

After six months, rats that received the scaffold showed the growth of new neurons that extended out into the rest of the spinal cord. The researchers confirmed that these new neurons and the rest of the nervous system could communicate with each other.

The structure is a 3D printed scaffold that is honeycombed with tiny tubes that function like highway tunnels, keeping the new cells growing on a straight path. Axons, the long, threadlike part of a nerve cell along which impulses are conducted from the cell body to other cells, can be directed with this fabricated scaffold. More specifically, the scaffold mirrors the central nervous system and aligns regenerating axons from one end of the spinal cord injury to the other.

Remarkably, axons can regenerate in any direction. The unique scaffold orders the axons and directs their growth to complete the spinal cord connection.

The New Frontier in Bioprinting?

In their abstract from a study published in The Asian Spine Journal (April 2018), researchers from the Department of Spine, Wockhardt Hospital, Mumbai, India, touted the potential of 3D printing as a tool to help repair such injuries:

"In the last decade, spine surgery has advanced tremendously. Tissue engineering and three-dimensional (3D) printing/additive manufacturing have provided promising new research avenues in the fields of medicine and orthopedics in recent literature, and their emergent role in spine surgery is encouraging. We reviewed recent articles that highlighted the role of 3D printing in medicine, orthopedics, and spine surgery and summarized the utility of 3D printing. 3D printing has shown promising results in various aspects of spine surgery and can be a useful tool for spine surgeons. The growing research on tissue bioengineering and its application in conjunction with additive manufacturing has revealed great potential for tissue bioengineering in the treatment of spinal ailments.”

Such advances in biomedical engineering are monumental. They represent the potential now seen, but for so long thought to be impossible. In this case, 3D printing, or bioprinting, is delivering technology in action that makes a difference and might return a life to those who suffer with these issues.

In a recent issue of Wired magazine, journalist Eric Niler quoted Christine Schmidt, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Florida who has conducted research regarding this technological biomedical feat: “Right now, they could print the materials that mimic the structure of the brain and add biochemical cues and extracellular matrix molecules,” Schmidt says. “But there is still so much that is not known about how the brain functions.”

For more information on miraculous 3D printing medical applications be sure to check out how Organ Replacement is being improved thanks to 3D printing.