Students and Professors Innovate with 3D-Printing for Organ Transplant

Students and Professors Innovate with 3D-Printing for Organ Transplant

Dr. Sundarram and his research assistants analyze tissue scaffolds.

I was looking for a research experience and this one piqued my interest because it was very intricate. I was also excited about using instruments like the scanning electron microscope and contributing to cancer research.”

— Nwachukwu Ibekwe ’22

Professor Sriharsha Sundarram, PhD, and his team of students are building three-dimensional tissue scaffolds in a lab, allowing living cells to proliferate and aiding in the development of artificial organs.

With the development of a three-dimensional framework, the cells are able to attach and grow in all directions, which replicates more closely their behavior in the human body. The challenge is that the surface on which the cells grow must be either porous or hollow, explained Dr. Sundarram, the Brinkman Family Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

“Think of a sponge, with all the channels throughout it,” he said. “Likewise, a tissue scaffold has to have channels. Yet, the 3D-printed scaffold is made of polymer and that is not a porous material. We must create the pores in order to increase surface area and roughness, allowing for better cell adhesion and growth during cell culture.”

Because the process used to create these pores must be chemical-free, since even trace amounts of chemicals have the potential to interrupt cell development, Dr. Sundarram and his undergraduate research assistants use a process called “microwave foaming.” With this technique, carbon dioxide is diffused into the scaffold using high pressure. The scaffold is then placed into a microwave synthesizer for heating. As the polymer tries to outgas and escape, it generates microscopic pores, thus forming the structure. Once the scaffolds are seeded with cells, they are placed into bioreactor chambers fitted with sensors and fluidic networks that encourage cell growth. Within 10 days, new cells should fill the entire scaffold.

Currently, the team is growing a particular type of cancer cell so that professor of biology Shelley Phelan, PhD, and her students can complete their study of a drug they hope will be effective in treating breast cancer. This lab-created tissue can provide a way for doctors to understand the effects of drugs and drug interactions on a system, said Dr. Sundarram.

The three-dimensional scaffolds will serve another purpose as well. “Because they replicate the function of tissue within the body more closely, fabrication of a scalable, inexpensive system for the development of bio-artificial organs is a key outcome. The end result will hopefully be organ transplantation,” said Dr. Sundarram.

The students assisting Dr. Sundarram — seniors Nwachukwu Ibekwe, Stephanie Prado, Sean Feeney, and Clarissa Rotonto – hail from Fairfield’s mechanical and biomedical engineering programs.

Ibekwe, a mechanical engineering student from Nigeria, began working with Dr. Sundarram last year. “I was looking for a research experience and this one piqued my interest because it was very intricate,” Ibekwe recalled. “I was also excited about using instruments like the scanning electron microscope and contributing to cancer research.”

Typically, Dr. Sundarram’s students design the scaffolds, test them, carry out procedures, and analyze cell growth and viability. They also prepared a project presentation, “Micro-Bioreactor for Tissue Scaffolds,” for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition in November 2021.

“Learning how the properties of materials function at a nano level is very helpful,” said Ibekwe, who has an interest in system dynamics and hopes to go into the aerospace industry someday. “This research experience, my training, and the chance to learn how to use these machines will be very useful in my future career.”

Dr. Sundarram presented his research on campus this past October when he delivered the prestigious Robert E. Wall lecture, an annual lecture series celebrating outstanding scholarly research.

Tags:  School of Engineering

Last modified: 01-04-22 2:03 PM

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