Photo courtesy of Prof. John March

Images demonstrating the growth of cells in the 3-D printed device (L) compared to static conditions (R). Mucus growth (red) is more pronounced in the bioreactor, leading to healthier cells.

October 30, 2017

3D Printed Artificial Small Intestine to Advance Research on Gut Bacteria

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What ingredients would you need to recreate the organ that enables you to digest your salad? According to Prof. John March, biological and environmental engineering, a 3-D printer would suffice. Together with researchers from his lab, March used 3-D printing technology to create a microscopic artificial small intestine.

Unlike previous attempts, the Cornell device recreates the natural contraction and relaxation of muscles — peristalsis — in the small intestine. Without this fundamental feature, researchers have been unable to completely understand the biology that underlies the working of the organ. The 3-D printed device also simulates the structure and texture of cells along the intestine’s surface.

The model could be especially beneficial to those studying the connection between the immune system and the small intestine. Previous research studies have shown that so-called “gut” bacteria aid the immune system and the device could help simulate how intermittent flow in the intestine affects these bacteria.

“We expect it will be used to study interactions between humans and the bacteria that reside in the intestine. The salient feature is that this device provides flow similar to that found in the intestine to study the effects of fluid dynamics on bacterial colonization,” March said. “Also it can be used to better understand how human cells grow and differentiate under shear forces that are applied by food and fluids moving in the intestine.”

Because the device can be 3-D printed, March believes that teams all over the world will be able to engage in more in-depth research on the organ. According to the team, the model also allows researchers to fine-tune their experiments by allowing them to control cell types, nutrient profiles and gaseous exchange as well as providing an easy interface to log chemical information.

“The nice thing about 3-D printing is that if you can draw it, you can make it,” March said.

Ever since the first organs were 3-D printed in 2003, interest in applications for such devices within the human body have grown, with firms like Johnson and Johnson and L’Oréal examining how to bioprint cartilages and skin. However, March emphasized that significant challenges remain before 3-D printed organs can even be experimented with.

“Transplants can have different objectives. For some patients, just getting an absorptive surface would be a huge improvement. Obviously, the goal is something that functions like a real intestine, but I think we are pretty far from that,” March said. “There have been huge strides made, many by our collaborators at Hopkins and Dr. Costello, but we are pretty far from a fully functional intestine ready for implantation.”