Students were challenged to test the possibilities of this technology in a biomedical manufacturing elective subject for engineering students
Medicine and engineering are investing heavily in bioprinting – the manufacture of parts in 3D printers adapted to the requirements of biology – for reasons that are easy to understand. Once custom-made human organs can be produced in the laboratory, advances in transplantation will be significant.
In Brazil, for example, about 23,000 procedures of this kind are performed every year, according to the National Transplant System. Another almost 53 thousand people are waiting for a donation, according to the Brazilian Association of Organ Transplantation, and 2,697 lost their lives on the waiting list throughout 2022.
The advancement of technology to the point of use in real cases, however, runs into some difficulties, as explained by Joice Miagava, PhD in Materials Engineering from the Escola Politécnica da Universidade de São Paulo (Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo) and professor at Insper, where she teaches undergraduate engineering courses. “One of the biggest challenges is the ideal material to be used. When printing is done with cells or other biological components, the material cannot be heated and, after the printing process, it needs to sustain its structure.”
Professor Joice, who has expertise in the physical chemistry of nanocrystalline materials, teaches an elective course in biomedical manufacturing at Insper for undergraduate engineering students. This subject was taught together with professor Alex Bottene and Paulo Amaral, specialists in manufacturing and cellular biology, respectively. “Bioengineering is, by nature, an interdisciplinary area, involving several engineering fronts besides the biological sciences,” explains Joice.
Throughout the course, in the second semester of last year, students were challenged to print 3D structures that would prove stable. One of the students, Gabriella Kowarick Zullo, became so engaged in her project, “3D bioprinting of structures for tissue regeneration”, that she was selected to present it in December at the Expo Tech Insper fair, the new name for the traditional Expo Engenharia.
To reach the point where it is possible to manufacture parts on the bioprinter, which has no heating system to ensure cell viability by forming structures layer by layer, it is necessary to find the ideal material, which remains fluid at room temperature. Using solvents that evaporate quickly, and in the right amount, is one of the strategies for success. In the case of the work presented at Expo Tech, a polymer known as hydrogel was used.
“It is a trial and error process, until you reach enough experience to find the balance point,” describes Joice. “Defining the piece to be printed was another complex task: certain geometries are more difficult to print and to guarantee the fidelity of the piece with the project. Or else what would be, in the proposed exercise, the shape of a gorilla could dismantle itself and gain the look of an amoeba.”
All these challenges, together with the potential that the process presents, generated engagement in the class. That was when student Gabriella stood out. “She dived into the activity and explained the details and potentials of the process with great excitement, impressing everyone at the Tech Expo,” says Joice.
For the future, the applications are manifold, says the professor. “Currently, research already allows us to produce simple structures, something similar to a graft, that helps regenerate tissue in a certain region of an organ. The advance of additive manufacturing is taking tissue engineering research to another level. For an undergraduate student, Gabriella has gained extensive learning on the subject, far above what is expected in a Mechatronics Engineering course.”