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3D printing enables nerve regeneration

22 Sep 2015  | R. Colin Johnson

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People with traumatic nerve damage from accidents or disease may find a cure in 3D printers. Professor Michael McAlpine from the University of Minnesota showed that 3D printed scaffold customised to each particular patient could now regrow complex nerves. Trials have been successful in rats, but McAlpine says that human trials may soon take place.

"Within the next two to five years, particularly now that we have a set of successful rat studies as a proof of concept of the safety and viability of this approach. This could be useful in humans for nerve repair, reversing of nerve degeneration and treating neuropathy," McAlpine told EE Times.

So far the clinical trials in rats has resulted in regaining the ability to walk with new nerves grown on scaffolds that were customised by McAlpine to precisely follow the routes of the original nerves. A 3D scanner was used to reconstruct the path of the original nerve, and biochemical cues were embedded by the 3D printer into the scaffold to determine the path taken by the sensor and motor nerves as they grew.

Scaffolds for single nerve regrowth has already been demonstrated, but according to McAlpine this is the first time complex nerves have been regenerated. Here a Y-shaped sciatic nerve was scanned and printed in about an hour.

3D scans of a nerve

3D scans of a nerve are used to create a custom regeneration guide; the Y-shape separates the motor from the sensory nerves. (Source: University of Minnesota)

However, the team—which included contributors not only from the University of Minnesota but also Virginia Tech, University of Maryland, Princeton University and Johns Hopkins University—still has to optimise their implantation techniques so that the scaffold does not become damaged during the regrowth period, which takes about 10 to 12 weeks.

"We tested this in a series of rats and there was a statistical significance to the improvement in the rats' abilities to walk again," McAlpine told us. "We still have some work to do in optimising our designs for successful treatment, such as avoiding mechanical failures that occur when the devices are put under stress while implanted."

Nerve regeneration

A 3D-printed nerve regeneration pathway implanted in a rat helped to improve walking in 10 to 12 weeks after implantation. (Source: University of Minnesota)

McAlpine hopes to perfect the process to the point that every hospital will have a 3D scanner and printer in-house to custom-design and -print scaffolds for patients on demand. A library of different kinds of nerves will also be kept on hand, according to McAlpine, for cases so severe that the original nerve is not available for scanning.

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