You can make a lot of crazy things with a 3D printer: buildings, teeth, animal models. A new technological advance suggests that even organs could be 3D printed. In the latest issue of the journal Science Advances, Carnegie Mellon University researchers report that they are able to 3D print soft biological structures, like arteries and hearts. 

While it’s fairly easy to 3D print something out of hard plastic, it’s much harder to create a stable 3D-printed object from softer materials. Things printed with gel, for instance, tend to collapse under their own weight. 

The Carnegie Mellon researchers used soft protein and carbohydrate hydrogels to create structures based on femur bones, arteries, embryonic hearts, and brains. The printed material is suspended in a second hydrogel made with gelatin, kind of like a supportive Jell-O. This gelatinous support bath is thermoreversible, meaning that it can be melted away with heat after the gel artery or heart structure sets. 

The researchers tested their concept on small-scale models of arteries, hearts, and other organs, but they’re not quite ready to print working organs just yet. The tests proved that the technique is capable of producing complex, hollow biological structures, but they’ll still need to work on growing living heart cells, for instance, on the 3D-printed gel scaffold to create working tissue. 

[h/t: Livescience via Stat]

Banner image from Hinton et al., Science Advances (2015)