EL PASO Researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso are using 3-D printers to make tissue including skin that could one day help treat wounds and other medical problems.
The pioneering work in the biomedical research lab on campus began with a simple idea.
'When I looked around the lab, I saw an old ink jet printer standing there and I thought, 'Oh this would be great to make patterns,'' said Thomas Boland.
A decade of work led to the development of technology to transform patterns of cells into tissue using inkjet cartridges.
'You empty out the ink and cut the top off and then we put a little tube in there,' said Boland demonstrating how the cartridge works.
The ultimate goal is to use 3-D printing to create skin and other tissue.
'It's 3-D printing in a whole new way of thinking about it,' said Boland.
Boland and his team of student researchers have printed tissue that was successfully grafted onto mice.That work is under peer review and should be published soon.
One possible use in humans: Treating patients with diabetes who have wounds that don't heal.
'If you help them, that's going to be great because you can avoid the infections and amputations,' said Maria Yanez, a student doing post-doctoral biomedical research at UTEP with Dr. Boland.
Using a patient's own cells means their bodies are not likely to reject the printed skin or other tissue.
'It's very important that people can heal by themselves,' Yanez said.
The research not only includes skin grafts, but also the development of small patches of fat that can be used to repair breast tissue in women who have had a lumpectomy.
Using the tissue in humans requires more research and regulatory approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which may be years away.
Even so, there is hope by regenerating tissue, researchers can grow entire organs in the lab to help patients who need transplants.
'That would be a huge breakthrough, and that would help countless people so that's the promise,' Boland said.
But he cautions fulfilling that promise is somewhere in the distant future. At this point, it is just an idea.
Of course, 3-D tissue printing also began as a simple idea.
'Something maybe out of a science fiction book, but now it's a reality,' Boland said.