3D printed ‘liver’ removes toxins from blood

Engineers from the University of California have developed a ground-breaking 3D printed device that removes toxins from the blood – like a biological liver.

In a lab at the University of California, nanoengineers have made an important development. Taking hints from the function of the humble liver, they’ve created a small, 3D printed device that can remove toxins from the blood. The external-use-only device utilises nanoparticles to capture pore-forming toxins that would go on to cause damage to cell membranes. This makes them of particular use in sickness that arises from animal bites and stings, as well as bacterial infections.

Nanoparticles are a proven method to counter pore-forming toxins in the blood, however they also pose risk of their own. If they cannot be digested, they can ironically be the cause of a secondary infection, by gathering in the liver. This is particularly dangerous to those who are already at risk of liver failure.

A team led by Professor Shaochen Chen went on to create a 3D printed hydrogel matrix to house the nanoparticles in order to combat this problem. The device has been designed to mimic the function of the liver by finding, attracting and trapping the toxins, and then turning red to notify that it has worked.

The work was announced in May in the journal Nature Communications and is currently at a promising proof-of-concept stage. By taking the lead from the natural function of a biological liver, the device is able to trap toxins within the device, and has been proven to completely neutralise the pore-forming toxins in an in vitro study.

“The concept of using 3D printing to encapsulate functional nanoparticles in a biocompatible hydrogel is novel,” said Chen. “This will inspire many new designs for detoxification techniques since 3D printing allows user-specific or site-specific manufacturing of highly functional products.”

Chen is no stranger to 3D printing, having used his lab to create a whole range of complex 3D microstructures. These include blood vessels, made out of biocompatible hydrogels.

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