photo by Antonino Paolo DiGiovanna

The Vein Game

By Kerry Parry

The geniuses behind the University of Colorado Boulder’s mechanical engineering project to enable doctors to create artificial body parts using 3D technology are unfamiliar with the kitschy 1970s television show, “The Six Million Dollar Man.” Cheesy as the show was, the premise isn’t so far-fetched now.

Replacing body parts is now a regular occurrence through organ and tissue donation or with the use of artificial equivalents, such as joints. Advances in creating these parts are making huge strides. Researchers worldwide are finding varying degrees of success creating replacement parts for people using 3D printing to form teeth, skin, ears and ovaries—even a heart.

A suitable substitute for veins could be a game-changer in treating a variety of vascular conditions due to injury or illness. Compromised blood supply can lead to amputations, heart attacks and strokes. Imagine if surgeons could print on-demand vascular replacement parts uniquely created to match a person’s anatomy. While artificial vein replacement was attempted as early as World War I, today’s concept is no longer science fiction. CU’s research team at the Department of Mechanical Engineering is currently working to do just that.

Yonghui Ding, a postdoctoral researcher at CU, along with professors Xiaobo Yin and Wei Tan, is working on a program that could duplicate a person’s vascular system to include the subtleties of texture and variation in thickness and rigidity. Ding says they synthesize their own material— a type of hydrogel—that can be cured using light and has similar properties to natural biological materials. They are also working on putting living cells in their 3D-printed materials.

“The next goal is to make cells and materials work together and function in the same way as a natural blood vessel,” says Ding.

Commercially available technology is capable of printing the exact geometry of a blood-vessel structure, but Ding says what makes their discoveries unique is the capability to personalize the variations in rigidity. They utilize unique biomaterials, as well as their own system of light and oxygen in curating samples. Printing layer by layer, they are able to input variables in the light dosage, making some layers more rigid and others more pliable to more closely approximate living tissue. They can create veins as small as 10 microns, approximately one-tenth the size of a human hair.

This technology may not end up in an operating room near you for at least a decade, but the capability is on the horizon. Ding says creating healthy replacement veins isn’t the only immediate use of this technology. He suggests an unhealthy vein could be duplicated to use in trials to measure a drug’s effectiveness in treating diseases such as peripheral artery disease, arteriosclerosis and carotid artery disease. This could ultimately lead to less reliance on animal testing—good news for animal-rights activists.

Bioengineering advancements like these are changing the landscape of medical diagnosis and treatment. Doctors and patients may no longer be at the mercy of waitlists for donated human replacement parts. Bioengineered parts are in the foreseeable future, which begs the question: Might they be used to restore full health and also to increase the capabilities of human function? Could improved body parts actually make us better…stronger…faster? Only time will tell.