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New 3D-printed device may help treat spinal cord injuries

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Washington: Scientists have developed a 3D-printed device that could potentially help patients with long-term spinal cord injuries regain some function. A three-dimensional (3D) printed guide, made of silicone, serves as a platform for specialised cells that are then printed on top of it, said researchers at the University of Minnesota in the US.

The guide would be surgically implanted into the injured area of the spinal cord where it would serve as a type of “bridge” between living nerve cells above and below the area of injury, according to the research published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

The hope is that this would help patients alleviate pain as well as regain some functions like control of muscles, bowel and bladder, researchers said. “This is the first time anyone has been able to directly 3D print neuronal stem cells derived from adult human cells on a 3D-printed guide and have the cells differentiate into active nerve cells in the lab,” said Michael McAlpine, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota.


“This is a very exciting first step in developing a treatment to help people with spinal cord injuries,” said Ann Parr, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “Currently, there are not any good, precise treatments for those with long-term spinal cord injuries,” Parr said.

In this new process, researchers start with any kind of cell from an adult, such as a skin cell or blood cell. Using new bioengineering techniques, the researchers are able to reprogramme the cells into neuronal stem cells.

The engineers print these cells onto a silicone guide using a unique 3D printing technology in which the same 3D printer is used to print both the guide and the cells. The guide keeps the cells alive and allows them to change into neurons.

The team developed a prototype guide that would be surgically implanted into the damaged part of the spinal cord and help connect living cells on each side of the injury. “Everything came together at the right time,” Parr said. “We were able to use the latest cell bioengineering techniques developed in just the last few years and combine that with cutting-edge 3-D-printing techniques,” said Parr.

If the next steps are successful, the payoff for this research could be life-changing for those who suffer from spinal cord injuries, researchers said. “We have found that relaying any signals across the injury could improve functions for the patients,” Parr said.