Spinal cord injuries are notorious for the disabilities they cause and for the difficulty of finding a way to fix them. At the University of Minnesota researchers are pointing to a potential solution in the form of 3D printed scaffolds seeded with neuronal stem cells.

The team has already created a prototype device, made of silicone with living cells printed into its structure. The device is designed to be implanted at the site of injury, to allow the cells embedded within it to proliferate and link the two disconnected parts of a spinal cord together. Hopefully, this would lead to a meaningful recovery in paralyzed patients’ functional abilities.

“This is the first time anyone has been able to directly 3D print neuronal stem cells derived from adult human cells on a 3D-printed guide and have the cells differentiate into active nerve cells in the lab,” said Michael McAlpine, Ph.D., co-author of the study appearing in journal Advanced Functional Materials.

The process involves first harvesting cells from a patient and then converting them into neuronal stem cell. These cells are then printed onto a prepared silicon guide that keeps the cells alive. While within this guide, the neuronal stem cells are able to morph into actual neurons.

A big challenge was making sure that the cells stayed alive through the printing process, something that required quite a bit of trial and error. In their later attempts, the researchers were able to have about 75% of the printed cells stay alive and ready for implantation.

This color-enhanced image shows living cells that survived the 3D-printing process. Neuronal stem cells derived from adult human cells were 3-D printed on a guide and the cells differentiated into active nerve cells in the lab.

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