Will we be able to print insulin-producing cells?

Posted on 15 December 2017

Researchers from the University of Wollongong in Australia have developed a 3D printer that has the potential to ‘print’ insulin-producing cells in a scaffold suitable for transplant.

A 3D printer
A 3D printer

The Pancreatic Islet Cell Transplantation (PICT) 3D printer has now been handed over to the Royal Adelaide Hospital so that it can be developed further in collaboration with the clinical team there.

Professor Gordon Wallace, from the University of Wollollong, was thrilled about the collaboration, and the potential impact of the new technology:

“ACES [ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science] at the University of Wollongong has built a collaborative clinical research network that enables us to tackle big clinical challenges and deliver practical solutions using 3D bioprinting.”

Why did they build this printer?

People develop type 1 diabetes when their immune system wrongly attacks and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Once killed, the beta cells are unable to grow back, and so insulin has to be injected or infused through a pump.

Beta cell transplants as a treatment however are very rare due to the risks associated with the strong, immunosuppressant drugs recipients need to take to prevent rejection. This has led researchers to look for alternative approaches to find ways of growing and transplanting insulin-producing cells with less risk.

What does this mean for type 1?

Royal Adelaide Hospital
Royal Adelaide Hospital

Although the work is still in early stages, the PICT 3D printer presents an innovative path to a treatment for type 1 diabetes. If the technique is shown to be safe and effective in people, it may bring us one step closer to a cure.

Professor Toby Coates, the Director of Kidney and Islet Transplantation at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, was optimistic about the potential use of the technology:

“The PICT Printer will allow us to make customised organs, mixing donor with recipient cells in a unique 3 Dimensional way to provide completely new composite ‘organoids’ for experimental transplantation.”

What’s the next step?

The team have indicated that they would like to develop the printing technique further. Professor Wallace said:

“In collaboration with Professor Toby Coates’ team at Royal Adelaide Hospital, we plan to improve the effectiveness of islet cell transplants by encapsulating donated islet cells in a 3D printed structure, to protect them during and after transplantation.”

Person holding insulin pump

Find out more about treatments and technologies for type 1 diabetes

There are different ways of monitoring blood glucose levels and delivering insulin to treat type 1 diabetes

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