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Progress Toward 3D Printed Human Organs

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There’s considerable excitement that 3D printing technology might one day allow scientists to produce fully functional replacement organs from one’s own cells. While there’s still a lot to learn, this video shows just some of the amazing progress that’s now being made.

The video comes from a bioengineering team at Rice University, Houston, that has learned to bioprint the small air sacs in the lungs. When hooked up to a machine that pulsed air in and out of the air sacs, the rhythmic movement helped to mix red blood cells traveling through an associated blood vessel network. Those red cells also took up oxygen in much the way that blood vessels do when surrounding the hundreds of millions of air sacs in our lungs.

As mentioned in the video, one of the biggest technical hurdles in growing fully functional replacement tissues and organs is to find a way to feed the growing tissues with a blood supply and to remove waste products. In this study recently published in Science [1], the NIH-supported team cleared this hurdle by creating an open-source bioprinting technology they call SLATE, which is short for “stereo-lithography apparatus for tissue engineering.”

The SLATE system “grows” soft hydrogel scaffolds one layer at a time. Each layer is printed using a liquid pre-hydrogel solution that solidifies when exposed to blue light. By also projecting light into the hydrogel as a pixelated 3D shape, it’s possible to print complex 3D structures within minutes.

When the researchers first started, their printouts lacked the high resolution, submillimeter-scale channels needed to generate intricate vascular networks. In other manufacturing arenas, light-absorbing chemicals have helped control the conversion from liquid to solid in a very fine polymer layer. But these industrial light-absorbing chemicals are highly toxic and therefore unsuitable for scaffolds that grow living tissues and organs.

The researchers, including Bagrat Grigoryan, Jordan Miller, and Kelly Stevens, wondered whether they could swap out those noxious ingredients with synthetic and natural food dyes widely used in the food industry. These dyes include curcumin, anthocyanin, and tartrazine (yellow dye #5). Their studies showed that those fully biocompatible dyes worked as effective light absorbers, allowing the scientists to recreate the complex architectures of human vasculature. Importantly, the living cells survived within the soft scaffold!

These models are already yielding intriguing new insights into the vascular structures found within our organs and how those architectures may influence function in ways that hadn’t been well understood. In the near term, tissues and organs grown on such scaffolds might also find use as sophisticated, 3D tissue “chips,” with potential for use in studies to predict whether drugs will be safe in humans.

In the long term, this technology may allow production of replacement organs from those needing them. More than 100,000 men, women, and children are on the national transplant waiting list in the United States alone and 20 people die each day waiting for a transplant [2]. Ultimately, with the aid of bioprinting advances like this one, perhaps one day we’ll have a ready supply of perfectly matched and fully functional organs.


[1] Multivascular networks and functional intravascular topologies within biocompatible hydrogels. Grigoryan B, Paulsen SJ, Corbett DC, Sazer DW, Fortin CL, Zaita AJ, Greenfield PT, Calafat NJ, Gounley JP, Ta AH, Johansson F, Randles A, Rosenkrantz JE, Louis-Rosenberg JD, Galie PA, Stevens KR, Miller JS. Science. 2019 May 3;364(6439):458-464.

[2] Organ Donor Statistics, Health Resources & Services Administration, October 2018.


Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering/NIH)

Tissue Chip for Drug Screening (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

Miller Lab (Rice University, Houston)

NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; Common Fund

Combating Mosquitoes with an Engineered Fungus

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Caption: Anopheles coluzzii mosquito with transgenic fungus (green) emerging from its body after death. Credit: Brian Lovett, University of Maryland, College Park

Almost everywhere humans live on this planet, mosquitoes carry microbes that cause potentially deadly diseases, from West Nile virus to malaria. While chemical insecticides offer a line of defense, mosquito populations often grow resistant to them. So, it’s intriguing to learn that we may now have another ally in this important fight: a genetically engineered fungus!

Reporting in the journal Science, an international research team supported by NIH describes how this new approach might be used to combat malaria [1]. A fungus called Metarhizium pingshaense is a natural enemy of the mosquito, but, by itself, it kills mosquitoes too slowly to control transmission of malaria. To make this fungus an even more efficient mosquito killer, researchers engineered it to carry a gene encoding a toxin, derived from a spider, that is deadly to insects. Tests of the souped-up fungus in a unique contained facility designed to simulate a West African village found it safely and rapidly killed insecticide-resistant mosquitoes, reducing their numbers by more than 99 percent within 45 days.

Mosquitoes are the deadliest animals in the world. More than 3.2 billion people—about half of all humans—are at risk for malaria, and more than 400,000 die each year from the disease. Other mosquito-borne illnesses, including Zika and dengue viruses, sicken millions more each year. By combining existing insect control strategies with the latest technical innovation, it should be possible to lower those numbers.

In the latest study, Raymond St. Leger and Brian Lovett, University of Maryland, College Park, teamed with Abdoulaye Diabate and colleagues from Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé/Cente Muraz, Burkina Faso, West Africa. The researchers employed a strategy that’s been in use around the world for more than 100 years to control agricultural pests.

The approach involves the fungal species Metarhizium, which kills a variety of insects. Earlier studies had shown that spores from a specific Metarhizium strain could make a big enough dent in a mosquito population to raise the possibility of using the fungus to reduce infective bites among humans [2]. But killing off the mosquitoes required very large quantities of fungal spores and usually took a couple of weeks.

Here’s where things turned innovative. To boost the fungus’s potency, St. Leger and colleagues used genetic engineering to add a toxin derived from the Australian Blue Mountains funnel-web spider. The toxin came with a major advantage: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) already has approved its use as a safe-and-effective insecticidal protein.

Besides giving the engineered fungus that ability to produce a spider toxin, the researchers added another clever element. They didn’t want the fungus to produce the toxin all the time—only after it comes in contact with a mosquito’s hemolymph, the insect equivalent of blood. So, they needed to insert a control switch, and the researchers knew just where to find the needed part.

Once inside a mosquito, the fungus naturally produces a structural protein called collagen that shields it from the insect’s immune system. A genetic switch that turns “on” when it detects an insect’s hemolymph controls that collagen production. To ensure that the spider toxin was produced at just the right time, the researchers hotwired their Metarhizium to begin producing it under the control of this same genetic switch.

The next step was to test this modified organism in a more natural, but controlled, environment. The researchers spent more than a year in Burkina Faso building a specialized facility called a MosquitoSphere. It’s similar to a very large greenhouse, but with mosquito netting instead of glass.

The MosquitoSphere has six separate compartments, four of which contain West African huts, along with native plants and breeding sites for mosquitoes. The researchers hung a black cotton sheet, previously soaked in sesame oil, on the wall of a hut in each of three chambers.

In one hut, the sesame oil contained genetically engineered fungal spores. In the second hut, the oil contained natural fungal spores. In the third hut, there were no spores at all. Then, they released 1,000 adult male and 500 adult female mosquitoes into each chamber and watched what happened over the next 45 days.

In the hut without spores, the mosquitoes established a stable population of almost 1,400. In the chamber with the natural spores, 450 mosquitoes survived. But, in the chamber with the engineered fungus, the researchers counted just 13 survivors—too few to sustain a viable population.

The researchers say they suspect the fungus would be relatively easy to contain in nature. It’s sticky and not easily airborne. The spores are also extremely sensitive to sunlight, making it difficult for them to travel far. Importantly, the fungus didn’t harm other beneficial insects, including honeybees.

Caution is warranted before considering the release of a genetically engineered organism into the wild. In the meantime, the genetically engineered fungus also will serve as a platform for continued technology development.

The system can be readily adapted to target mosquitoes or other insects , perhaps using different natural toxins if insects might grow resistant to Metarhizium just as they have to traditional insecticides. Interestingly, the researchers note that the engineered fungi appear to make mosquitoes sensitive to chemical insecticides again, suggesting that the two types of insect-killers might be used successfully in combination.


[1] Transgenic Metarhizium rapidly kills mosquitoes in a malaria-endemic region of Burkina Faso. Lovett B, Bilgo E, Millogo SA, Ouattarra AK, Sare I, Gnambani EJ, Dabire RK, Diabate A, St Leger RJ. Science. 2019 May 31;364(6443):894-897.

[2] An entomopathogenic fungus for control of adult African malaria mosquitoes. Scholte EJ, Ng’habi K, Kihonda J, Takken W, Paaijmans K, Abdulla S, Killeen GF, Knols BG. Science. 2005 Jun 10;308(5728):1641-2.


Transgenic Fungus Rapidly Killed Malaria Mosquitoes in West African Study (University of Maryland News Release)

Malaria (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Funnel-Web Spiders (Australian Museum, Sydney)

Video: 2016 Grand Challenges Spotlight Talk: Abdoulaye Diabaté (YouTube)

Raymond St. Leger (University of Maryland, College Park)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

An ‘Off-the-Shelf’ Replacement for Damaged Blood Vessels?

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human acellular vessel
Credit: Humacyte, Inc., Durham, NC

The object in the image above might look like an ordinary plastic tube. But this tube is neither plastic nor ordinary. It’s a bioengineered replacement human blood vessel that could one day benefit people who receive kidney dialysis or undergo coronary bypass surgery.

It’s called a human acellular vessel (HAV), and an NIH-funded team, led by Heather Prichard, Humacyte Inc., Durham, NC, grows these acellular vessels. They can run up to about 16-inches long with a diameter of 0.2 inches, which is well within the range of a human blood vessel.

Prichard and team start with a lightweight and biodegradable polymer mesh. They then seed the mesh scaffold with cells taken from human donor tissue within a 3D bioreactor system in the lab. The system is specially designed to provide nutrients and mechanical pulsations similar to those present in an intact human circulatory system.

After incubating the growing vessels for eight weeks, the researchers remove all the living cells, leaving behind mostly human collagen, a fibrous protein and major structural component of a blood vessel wall. It forms a non-living, replacement vessel that retains the physical and mechanical integrity of a human blood vessel. But, because these HAVs don’t have cells, they potentially can be surgically implanted into any human patient without risk of an immune reaction.

As reported recently in Science Translational Medicine, the best part is what happens after an HAV is implanted into the body [1]. The patient’s own cells infiltrate the HAVs. Over the course of many weeks, these cells produce multiple layers of living tissue to transform the acellular HAV into a functional, living blood vessel.

So far, HAVs have been tested in more than 240 people with end-stage kidney failure. The HAVs were implanted into the upper arms of participants and remained there from 16 to 200 weeks while these patients underwent dialysis three times per week to filter waste products from their blood. The early results indicate these bioengineered blood vessels were safe and fully functional. More research, though, will be needed to ensure that’s indeed the case.

For people who receive kidney dialysis, doctors now typically access the vasculature by linking an artery to a vein under the skin of the arm, making an “AV fistula.” But doctors can also use the HAV tube to make the needed connection.

What’s potentially game changing about HAVs is they offer the same “off-the-shelf” ease of a plastic tube but with the advantages of living tissue. Those advantages include the ability to fight infection and self-heal from the inevitable injury that comes with repeated needle pokes.

Though most of the work to date has focused on people undergoing kidney dialysis, an ongoing clinical trial is testing the potential of HAVs to improve blood flow when surgically implanted into the legs of patients with peripheral arterial disease [3]. Prichard also sees potential for HAVs in heart surgery. For example, HAVs might be useful during coronary bypass surgery to repair a narrowed or blocked blood vessel. They could also be used to replace blood vessels damaged or missing due to congenital defects or traumatic injuries. Not bad for an object that looks like an ordinary plastic tube.


[1] Bioengineered human acellular vessels recellularize and evolve into living blood vessels after human implantation. Kirkton RD, Santiago-Maysonet M, Lawson JH, Tente WE, Dahl SLM, Niklason LE, Prichard HL. Sci Transl Med. 2019 Mar 27;11(485).

[2] Kidney Disease Statistics for the United States. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH

[3] Humacyte’s HAV for Femoro-Popliteal Bypass in Patients With PAD.


Safety and Efficacy of a Vascular Prosthesis for Hemodialysis Access in Patients With End-Stage Renal Disease (ClinicalTrials.Gov)

Hemodialysis (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering/NIH)

Humacyte (Durham, NC)

NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Detecting Cancer with a Herringbone Nanochip

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Herringbone lab on a chip
Caption: Lab on a chip with herringbone pattern. Inset shows exosomes.
Credit: Yong Zeng, University of Kansas, Lawrence and Kansas City

The herringbone motif is familiar as the classic, V-shaped patterned weave long popular in tweed jackets. But the nano-sized herringbone pattern seen here is much more than a fashion statement. It helps to solve a tricky design problem for a cancer-detecting “lab-on-a-chip” device.

A research team, led by Yong Zeng, University of Kansas, Lawrence, and Andrew Godwin at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City. previously developed a lab-on-a-chip that senses exosomes. They are tiny bubble-shaped structures that most mammalian cells secrete constantly into the bloodstream [1]. Once thought of primarily as trash bags used by cells to rid themselves of waste products, exosomes carry important molecular information (RNA, protein, and metabolites) used by cells to communicate and influence the behavior of other cells.

What’s also interesting, tumor cells produce more exosomes than healthy cells. That makes these 30-to-150-nanometer structures (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter) potentially useful for detecting cancer. In fact, these NIH-funded researchers found that their microfluidic device can detect exosomes from ovarian cancer within a 2-microliter blood sample. That’s just 1/25th of a drop!

But there was a technical challenge. When such tiny samples are placed into microfluidic channels, the fluid and any particles within it tend to flow in parallel layers without any mixing between them. As a result, exosomes can easily pass through undetected, without ever touching the biosensors on the surface of the chip.

That’s where the herringbone comes in. As reported in Nature Biomedical Engineering, when fluid flows over those 3D herringbone structures, it produces a whirlpool-like effect [2]. As a result, exosomes are more reliably swept into contact with the biosensors.

The team’s distinctive herringbone structures also increase the surface area within the chip. Because the surface is also porous, it allows fluid to drain out slowly to further encourage exosomes to reach the biosensors.

Zeng’s team put their “lab-on-a-chip” to the test using blood samples from 20 patients with ovarian cancer and 10 age-matched controls. The chip was able to detect rapidly the presence of exosomal proteins known to be associated with ovarian cancer.

The researchers report that their device is sensitive enough to detect just 10 exosomes in a 1-microliter sample. It also could be easily adapted to detect exosomal proteins associated with other cancers, and perhaps other conditions as well.

Zeng and colleagues haven’t mentioned whether they’re also looking into trying other geometric patterns in their designs. But the next time you see a tweed jacket, just remember that there’s more to its herringbone pattern than meets the eye.


[1] Ultrasensitive microfluidic analysis of circulating exosomes using a nanostructured graphene oxide/polydopamine coating. Zhang P, He M, Zeng Y. Lab Chip. 2016 Aug 2;16(16):3033-3042.

[2] Ultrasensitive detection of circulating exosomes with a 3D-nanopatterned microfluidic chip. Zhang P, Zhou X, He M, Shang Y, Tetlow AL, Godwin AK, Zeng Y. Nature Biomedical Engineering. February 25, 2019.


Ovarian, Fallopian Tube, and Primary Peritoneal Cancer—Patient Version (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Cancer Screening Overview—Patient Version (NCI/NIH)

Extracellular RNA Communication (Common Fund/NIH)

Zeng Lab (University of Kansas, Lawrence)

Godwin Laboratory (University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute

Oral Insulin Delivery: Can the Tortoise Win the Race?

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Turtle shape compared to capsule shape
Caption: The African leopard tortoise’s shape inspired a new insulin-injecting “pill” (right). Credit: Alex Abramson

People with diabetes often must inject insulin multiple times a day to keep their blood glucose levels under control. So, I was intrigued to learn that NIH-funded bioengineers have designed a new kind of “pill” that may someday reduce the need for those uncomfortable shots. The inspiration for their design? A tortoise!

The new “pill”—actually, a swallowable device containing a tiny injection system—is shaped like the shell of an African leopard tortoise. In much the same way that the animal’s highly curved shell enables it to quickly right itself when flipped on its back, the shape of the new device is intended to help it land in the right position to inject insulin or other medicines into the stomach wall.

The hunt for a means to deliver insulin in pill form has been on ever since insulin injections first were introduced, nearly a century ago. The challenge in oral delivery of insulin and other “biologic” drugs—including therapeutic proteins, peptides, or nucleic acids—is how to get these large biomolecules through the highly acidic stomach and duodenum, where multiple powerful digestive enzymes reside, and into the bloodstream unscathed. Past efforts to address this challenge have met with only limited success.

In a study published in the journal Science, a team, led by Robert Langer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and Giovanni Traverso, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, took a new approach to the problem by developing a tiny, ingestible injection system [1]. They call their pea-sized device SOMA, short for “self-orienting millimeter-scale applicator.”

In designing SOMA, the researchers knew they had to come up with a design that would orient the injection apparatus correctly. So they looked to the African leopard tortoise. They knew that, much like a child’s “weeble-wobble” toy, this tortoise can easily right its body if tipped over due to its low center of gravity and highly curved shell. With the shape of the tortoise shell as a starting point, the researchers used computer modeling to perfect their design. The final result features a partially hollowed-out, polymer-and-steel capsule that houses a tiny, spring-loaded needle tipped with compressed, freeze-dried insulin. There is also a dissolvable sugar disk to hold the needle in place until the time is right.

Here’s how it works: once a SOMA is swallowed and reaches the stomach, it quickly orients itself in a way that its needle-side rests against the stomach wall. After the protective sugar disk dissolves in stomach acid, the spring-loaded needle tipped with insulin is released, injecting its load of insulin into the stomach wall, from which it enters the bloodstream. Meanwhile, the spent SOMA device passes on through the digestive system.

The researchers’ tests in pigs have shown that a single SOMA can successfully deliver insulin doses of up to 3 milligrams, comparable to the amount a human with diabetes might need to inject. The tests also showed that the device’s microinjection did not damage the animals’ stomach tissue or the muscles surrounding the stomach. Because the stomach is known for being insensitive to pain, researchers expect that people receiving insulin via SOMA wouldn’t feel a thing, but much more research is needed to confirm both the safety and efficacy of the new device for human use.

Meanwhile, this fascinating work serves as a reminder that when it comes to biomedical science, inspiration sometimes can come from the most unexpected places.


[1] An ingestible self-orienting system for oral delivery of macromolecules. Abramson A, Caffarel-Salvador E, Khang M, Dellal D, Silverstein D, Gao Y, Frederiksen MR, Vegge A, Hubálek F, Water JJ, Friderichsen AV, Fels J, Kirk RK, Cleveland C, Collins J, Tamang S, Hayward A, Landh T, Buckley ST, Roxhed N, Rahbek U, Langer R, Traverso G. Science. 2019 Feb 8;363(6427):611-615.


Diabetes (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Langer Lab (MIT, Cambridge)

Giovanni Traverso (Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston)

NIH Support: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering

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