One of the big medical changes ahead could relate to the production of tissue for implants, combining 3-D printing technology and bioscience.

Among those leading the way are scientists at the University of Bristol who have developed a new kind of bio-ink, which they say could eventually allow the production of complex tissues for surgical implants.

The ink, which contains stem cells, allows 3D printing of living tissue, a process known as bio-printing, and contains two different polymer components, a natural polymer extracted from seaweed, and a synthetic polymer used in the medical industry. The synthetic polymer causes the bio-ink to change from liquid to solid when the temperature is raised and the seaweed polymer provides structural support when the cell nutrients are introduced.

Lead researcher Dr Adam Perriman, from the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, said: “This kind of technology is at the cutting edge, but we are already seeing major benefits. For example, we can bioprint living tissue-like structures that can be used by other scientists or drug companies to reduce the need for animal testing.

“Designing the new bio-ink was extremely challenging. You need a material that is printable, strong enough to maintain its shape when immersed in nutrients, and that is not harmful to the cells. We managed to do this, but there was a lot of trial and error before we cracked the final formulation.

“What was really astonishing for us was when the cell nutrients were introduced, the synthetic polymer was completely expelled from the 3D structure, leaving only the stem cells and the natural seaweed polymer. This, in turn, created microscopic pores in the structure, which provided more effective nutrient access for the stem cells.”

The team’s findings could eventually lead to the ability to print complex tissues using the patient’s own stem cells for surgical bone or cartilage implants, which in turn could used in knee and hip surgeries.

Adam said: “I think we are still at an early stage with these kind of technologies. Having said that, we are seeing big companies investing a lot of money into research and the past twelve months have seen an explosion, not just in technology, but in the applications for which it can be used.

“I think the technology has potential and there is a lot of research being carried out. I have just started working, for instance, with a surgeon in Bristol on a project which uses 3-D printing to create micro-tumours that start growing in 3-4 days which allows us to investigate which drugs they respond to. We expect that this will have major implications for cost effective personalised medicine in the treatment of cancer.”