3D-Printed Heart Created by Israeli Researchers in World First: 'This Heart Is Made From Human Cells'

3D printed heart
A 3D-printed, small-scale human heart engineered from a patient's own materials and cells. Advanced Science. © 2019 The Authors.

Israeli researchers have created what they say is the world's first 3D-printed heart, made using cells and biological material from a human patient.

According to a paper published in the journal Advanced Science, the miniature organ includes blood vessels, in what the team from Tel Aviv University (TAU) are hailing as a significant step forward for the field of regenerative medicine.

"This is the first time anyone anywhere has successfully engineered and printed an entire heart replete with cells, blood vessels, ventricles and chambers," Tal Dvir, lead author of the study from TAU, said in a statement.

"This heart is made from human cells and patient-specific biological materials," Dvir said. "In our process, these materials serve as the bio-inks—substances made of sugars and proteins that can be used for 3D printing of complex tissue models. People have managed to 3D-print the structure of a heart in the past, but not with cells or with blood vessels. Our results demonstrate the potential of our approach for engineering personalized tissue and organ replacement in the future."

In the United States, heart disease is the number one killer of men and women, leading to the deaths of around 610,000 people every year. For many patients with advanced heart failure, receiving a transplant is the only treatment option available. However, there are significant shortages of heart donors—an issue that regenerative medicine has the potential to address.

Despite this potential, the 3D-printed heart is still some way off from being ready for transplantation into humans. "At this stage, our 3D heart is small, the size of a rabbit's heart," Dvir said. "But larger human hearts require the same technology."

To create the heart, the researchers used a bio-ink gel made out of fatty tissue extracted from a patient. In total, the printing process took about three hours. The team say that using material extracted from the patient is very important when creating organs for transplant.

"The biocompatibility of engineered materials is crucial to eliminating the risk of implant rejection, which jeopardizes the success of such treatments," Dvir said. "Ideally, the biomaterial should possess the same biochemical, mechanical and topographical properties of the patient's own tissues. Here, we can report a simple approach to 3D-printed thick, vascularized cardiac tissues that completely match the immunological, cellular, biochemical and anatomical properties of the patient."

The next step for the researchers is to engineer their creation to behave like a real heart, before transplanting them into animals to test their feasibility.

"We need to develop the printed heart further," Dvir said. "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. Maybe, in 10 years, there will be organ printers in the finest hospitals around the world, and these procedures will be conducted routinely."

Norbert Radacsi, a chemical engineering lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K., who was not involved in the latest research, described the development as an "amazing breakthrough," but noted that there are still several issues to be addressed.

"It was expected for a while that in a few years we will be able to 3D-print fully functional human hearts, which can replace our faulty ones," Radacsi told Newsweek. "According to this recent study from Israel, we are closer than we thought. This study demonstrated that with [a] newly developed support material, it is possible to 3D-print 2-centimeter tall human hearts. In order to print fully functional adult-size human hearts, further research is needed.

"3D-printing a blood vessel is extremely challenging, as artificial blood vessels tend to burst over time. The current 3D-printed human hearts are excellent for drug testing, but many issues still need to be addressed before we can do a human transplant, for example, the printed heart will need to have long-term functionality without any problems," Radacsi said.

"This article will hopefully boost the research in this field, so humans can get a new hearts from their own stem cells within five to 10 years. We can implement the presented 3D bio-printing technology to print other organs as well."

Radacsi said that this research, as well as the development of 3D bio-printing, is part of a revolution in the field of bioengineering.

"I am very excited to see how we are getting closer to 3D-printing humans, as can be seen in the TV show, Westworld," Radacsi said. "I think the 20th century was the century for physics, while the 21st century will be the century of bioengineering."

Sam Pashneh-Tala, from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., who was also not involved in the research, said we should be cautious about the new findings.

"This certainly is interesting research," he told Newsweek. "However, the headline overstates the achievement somewhat. The 3D printed 'mini-heart' should only really be considered a showpiece. This construct did not demonstrate any function as a heart. Additional research work is required to mature the organ further and ensure the cardiomyocytes function correctly, working together to contract the organ and provide pumping capacity.

"Additionally, the mini heart only contained the major blood vessels present in the organ. A much denser network of smaller blood vessels throughout the heart would be required in order to provide the cells within it with appropriate nutrients and maintain their viability. The approaches outlined are certainly exciting, but the study itself highlights that several challenges remain before a 3D printed heart could be a viable clinical option for the treatment of organ failure."

This article was updated with comments from Sam Pashneh-Tala.