Researchers print 3D heart valves that could grow inside the body

A team of researchers recently announced that they have developed a new form of 3D printed heart valve. These parts are designed to give the patient’s own cells a chance to form new cells and grow with the rest of the body. This development is intended to help reduce the complications associated with transplants. As you know, the use of additive manufacturing in the medical field has grown exponentially as it has enabled scientists and physicians to explore possibilities that were completely unimaginable just a few years ago. The project is still in the research and development phase, but still represents a significant step forward for the healthcare sector.

The team includes Petra Mela, Professor of Medical Materials and Implants at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), and Professor Elena De-Juan Pardo from the University of Western Australia. Together they worked to develop 3D printed heart valves that could be used as lifelong implants due to their ability to grow new tissue. Using additive manufacturing technologies combined with special biodegradable materials, professionals have been able to create implants that replicate the unique complexity of a human organ.

The 3D printed valves are very detailed (Image credit: Andreas Heddergott / TUM)

Although there are other types of heart valve implants, their use is always associated with different complications. Mechanical valves, for example, tend to form blood clots on metal surfaces, which can lead to serious complications. In addition, patients must take blood thinners for life and limit their physical activity. Another disadvantage is that these valves cannot grow and will eventually need to be replaced, as Petra Mela explains: “ Our goal is to develop bio-inspired heart valves that promote the formation of new functional tissue in patients. Children in particular would benefit from such a solution, since current heart valves do not grow with the patient and have to be replaced in several surgeries over the years. Our heart valves, on the other hand, mimic the complexity of natural heart valves and are designed to allow the patient’s cells to penetrate the framework. »

The use of a special technology for 3D printed heart valves

In order to be able to imitate the fine biological structures of the human organ, the researchers turned to a completely new additive manufacturing technology, the so-called “melt electrowriting”. It is essentially an extrusion process in which a polymer is heated, melted and ejected as a jet of liquid from a print head. However, the uniqueness of this process lies in the use of a high-voltage electric field applied to the nozzle, making the resulting fiber as thin as five to fifty microns, allowing the machine to print extremely detailed and produce highly precise models. To ensure the best material is used for the implant, the team chose to use medical-grade polycaprolactone (PCL), which is cell-compatible and biodegradable.

Petra Mela, Professor of Medical Materials and Implants at the Technical University of Munich

As already mentioned, the long-term goal is to produce implants for children that can remain in the body and grow with the patient. The hope is that over time, the cells will settle into the micropore spaces, which are smaller than the pores in the PCL structure. While there’s still a long way to go, the team believes this represents a big improvement for people with valvular heart disease and will soon move to animal testing. To learn more about the project, click HERE.

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*Cover photo credits: Andreas Heddergott / TUM

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