U researchers 3-D print device for spinal cord repair

Engineers and medical researchers at the University of Minnesota have teamed up to create a 3-D-printed device that could help patients with long-term spinal cord injuries regain some function, such as muscle, bowel, and bladder control.

The research results were published August 9 in Advanced Functional Materials.

“This is the first time anyone has been able to directly 3-D print neuronal stem cells derived from adult human cells on a 3-D-printed guide and have the cells differentiate into active nerve cells in the lab,” says Michael McAlpine, Ph.D., study coauthor and holder of the Benjamin Mayhugh Associate Professorship of Mechanical Engineering in the U’s College of Science and Engineering.

In this U-developed process, researchers start with any kind of cell from an adult. Using new bioengineering techniques, they reprogram these cells, turning them into neuronal stem cells. The scientists then print these cells onto a silicone guide that keeps the cells alive and allows them to change into neurons. 

The resulting device is surgically implanted into the damaged part of the spinal cord to help connect living cells on each side of the injury. Currently, the team is testing the device in animal models and hopes to expand the research to human trials in the coming years. If these steps are successful, the technique could be life-changing for those who live with spinal cord injuries.

“We’ve found that relaying any signals across the injury could improve functions for the patients,” says Ann Parr, M.D., Ph.D., coauthor of the study and assistant professor of neurosurgery in the U’s Medical School and Stem Cell Institute. “There’s a perception that people with spinal cord injuries will only be happy if they can walk again. In reality, most want simple things like bladder control or to be able to stop uncontrollable movements of their legs. These simple improvements in function could greatly improve their lives.”   


Colorful representation of cells

Living cells that survived the 3-D printing process. (Images: McAlpine Group, University of Minnesota)

Published on October 17, 2018

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