If you were to pull apart a bioprinter, as we'd love to do, you'd encounter these basic parts:
Print head mount -- On a bioprinter, the print heads are attached to a metal plate running along a horizontal track. The x-axis motor propels the metal plate (and the print heads) from side to side, allowing material to be deposited in either horizontal direction.
Elevator -- A metal track running vertically at the back of the machine, the elevator, driven by the z-axis motor, moves the print heads up and down. This makes it possible to stack successive layers of material, one on top of the next.
Platform -- A shelf at the bottom of the machine provides a platform for the organ to rest on during the production process. The platform may support a scaffold, a petri dish or a well plate, which could contain up to 24 small depressions to hold organ tissue samples for pharmaceutical testing. A third motor moves the platform front to back along the y-axis.
Reservoirs -- The reservoirs attach to the print heads and hold the biomaterial to be deposited during the printing process. These are equivalent to the cartridges in your inkjet printer.
Print heads/syringes -- A pump forces material from the reservoirs down through a small nozzle or syringe, which is positioned just above the platform. As the material is extruded, it forms a layer on the platform.
Triangulation sensor -- A small sensor tracks the tip of each print head as it moves along the x-, y- and z-axes. Software communicates with the machine so the precise location of the print heads is known throughout the process.
Microgel -- Unlike the ink you load into your printer at home, bioink is alive, so it needs food, water and oxygen to survive. This nurturing environment is provided by a microgel -- think gelatin enriched with vitamins, proteins and other life-sustaining compounds. Researchers either mix cells with the gel before printing or extrude the cells from one print head, microgel from the other. Either way, the gel helps the cells stay suspended and prevents them from settling and clumping.
Bioink -- Organs are made of tissues, and tissues are made of cells. To print an organ, a scientist must be able to deposit cells specific to the organ she hopes to build. For example, to create a liver, she would start with hepatocytes -- the essential cells of a liver -- as well as other supporting cells. These cells form a special material known as bioink, which is placed in the reservoir of the printer and then extruded through the print head. As the cells accumulate on the platform and become embedded in the microgel, they assume a three-dimensional shape that resembles a human organ.
Alternatively, the scientist could start with a bioink consisting of stem cells, which, after the printing process, have the potential to differentiate into the desired target cells. Either way, bioink is simply a medium, and a bioprinter is an output device. Up next, we'll review the steps required to print an organ designed specifically for a single patient.