Healing Nerves with 3D Printing

November 3, 2015
3D image of magnified nerves

A national team led by the University of Minnesota has developed a first-of-its-kind, 3D-printed guide that helps regrow both the sensory and motor functions of complex nerves after injury. The groundbreaking research has the potential to help more than 200,000 people annually who experience often permanent nerve injuries or disease.

In a study published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, researchers used a combination of 3D imaging and 3D printing techniques to create a custom silicone guide implanted with biochemical cues to help nerve regeneration.

The guide was then implanted into lab rats by surgically grafting it to the cut ends of the nerve. Within about 10 to 12 weeks, the rat's ability to walk was improved.

"This represents an important proof of concept of the 3D printing of custom nerve guides for the regeneration of complex nerve injuries," says U of M mechanical engineering professor Michael McAlpine, the study's lead researcher. "Someday we hope that we could have a 3D scanner and printer right at the hospital to create custom nerve guides right on site to restore nerve function."

McAlpine says previous studies have shown regrowth of linear nerves, but this is the first time a study has shown the creation of a custom guide for regrowth of a complex nerve like the Y-shaped sciatic nerve that has both sensory and motor branches.