The process, developed at Heriot-Watt University, in partnership with Roslin Cellab, takes advantage of the fact that stem cells can now be grown in laboratory conditions from established cell lines.
This technique raises the possibility of developing purpose-built replacement organs for patients, eliminating the need for organ donation and the problem of transplant rejection.
It could also speed up and improve the process of drug testing by growing three-dimensional human tissues and structures for pharmaceuticals to be tested on.
"While 3D printing of the tougher cell cultures has been achieved before, the new valve-based technique developed by Dr Will Shu and his colleagues at Heriot-Watt's Biomedical Microengineering group are the first to print the more delicate embryonic cell cultures, which have an ability to replicate indefinitely and differentiate into almost any cell type in the human body," the Heriot-Watt University today said in a statement.
"To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that these cells have been 3D printed. The technique will allow us to create more accurate human tissue models which are essential to in-vitro drug development and toxicity-testing. Since the majority of drug discovery is targeting human disease, it makes sense to use human tissues," Shu said.
"In the longer term, we envisage the technology being further developed to create viable 3D organs for medical implantation from a patient's own cells, eliminating the need for organ donation, immune suppression and the problem of transplant rejection."
Dr Shu's team has been working with Roslin Cellab, a leading stem cell technology company, which will take the lead in developing 3D stem cell printing for commercial uses.
Initially, this will be in the areas of novel drug-testing products but in the longer term there is the goal of growing purpose-built replacement organs.
Jason King, business development manager of Roslin Cellab, said, "This world-first printing of human embryonic stem cell cultures is a continuation of our productive partnership with Heriot-Watt.
Normally laboratory grown cells grow in 2D but some cell types have been printed in 3D. However, up to now, human stem cell cultures have been too sensitive to manipulate in this way.
"This is a scientific development which we hope and believe will have immensely valuable long-term implications for reliable, animal-free drug-testing and, in the longer term to provide organs for transplant on demand, without the need for donation and without the problems of immune suppression and potential organ rejection."