Researchers with the Fraunhofer Institute in Munich, Germany are using a combination of 3D printing and multiphoton polymerization to take their first steps into the bioengineering of blood vessels. Their research is officially called the "BioRap" project and they plan to present it at the Biotechnica Fair in Hannover, Germany on October 11-13.

The Fraunhofer blood vessel networks are important for a number of reasons; their successful development could one day lead to the end of animal testing or even to 3D printed transplantable organs like hearts and kidneys. There's just one problem: right now scientists can print out small groups of cells and get them to organize into something like a kidney. What they can't do is print out large groups of cells and keep them alive because the cells on the inside die from lack of food and oxygen. The research teams at Fraunhofer are working to solve that problem by creating printable blood vessel networks.

Dr. Günter Tovar

The researchers are using a combination of 3D bioprinting and multiphoton polymerization to creates the vascular networks. First, the cells are printed into specific patterns. Then, tiny laser impulses are fired into the cells, forcing them to bond and form an elastic network. The project manager, Dr. Günter Tovar, acknowledges the research is still in the early phases, but is hopeful it may one day open up new doors for science and medicine. "We are establishing a basis for applying rapid prototyping to elastic and organic biomaterials. The vascular systems illustrate very dramatically what opportunities this technology has to offer, but that's definitely not the only thing possible."

Once the Fraunhofer Institute can print the vascular networks they will be able to create tissue samples on demand. Those tissue samples may one day replace animal testing because they can provide more accurate results for scientists who want to test out new treatments or vaccines. After that, the work on printing fully functional organs begins; something that experts say may be around fifteen to twenty years away. The Fraunhofer Institute isn't the only place working to create 3D printed vascular networks though. Scientists at Wake Forest, Organovo and Rice University are working on similar projects.