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MAN AND MACHINE: Gabor Forgacs with his bioprinter, a custom-built machine about the size of a large refrigerator.

Classical tissue engineering employs scaffolds, structures in the shape of organs or tissues that are made of biologically friendly materials. These include natural ones such as collagen, or synthetics such as biodegradable polymers. The engineers deposit cells on the scaffold, keeping the cells nourished as they multiply and grow to fill the structure. If all goes well, the scaffold eventually biodegrades leaving a fully formed organ.

Anthony Atala at Wake Forest University has had the greatest success using this approach. He has built new, functioning urinary bladders. Seven children whose spina bifida left them vulnerable to incontinence and kidney damage already have the new organs. Further clinical trials are underway.

The big challenge to this approach, however, has been to find the right materials for building the scaffolds. Different cells need different environments. Complicating the search further, complex organs are made of a variety of cells. It took Atala years to discover the right formula for his engineered bladders, Forgacs says.

Not every researcher is so fortunate.

One researcher, for example, has been trying to grow blood vessels by seeding a cylindrical scaffold with cells. But the scaffolds have not biodegraded sufficiently to ensure that blood flows smoothly through the vessels. "The remnants of the scaffold still affect the structure of the vessels," Forgacs says.

This is where Forgacs and his colleagues innovate. His method for building blood vessels dispenses with scaffolds altogether. Instead, he takes advantage of new technologies and naturally occurring properties of cells that make the assembly of tissues look deceptively easy.

"People have been trying to engineer scaffolds with increasing complexity. You end up with something harder to reproduce," says Glenn Prestwich, an organic chemist at the University of Utah-Salt Lake City and another member of Forgacs' research team. "To be scaffold-free is really changing the paradigm."

At the heart of Forgacs' lab is a bioprinter, a custom-built machine about the size of a large refrigerator, that he is using to fabricate blood vessels. The bioprinter is decidedly not like the inkjet printers used with home computers, although other researchers have been modifying conventional inkjets for tissue engineering.

At Clemson University, for example, researchers have been able to print the university's unofficial tiger paw logo with bacteria. But that approach doesn't appeal to Forgacs.

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Published by the Office of Research.

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