A team of biomedical engineers in Australia have developed a small flexible robot that can be used to 3D print biomaterials directly inside the human body, in the hopes of streamlining future medical procedures.

3D bioprinting is a process where natural tissue-like structures are printed using living cells and other natural tissues known as "bio-ink", in order to repair organ or tissue damage or ruptured blood vessels.

The use of living cells in the printing process allows these man-made structures to fuse naturally with the human body and continue to grow.

Currently, biomaterials must be created outside of the body before relying on typically invasive surgery to insert the materials inside the body, which can lead to high blood loss, infections, and other complications.

Team leader Thanh Nho Do said this new device, named F3DB, will eliminate those complications and risks by printing directly inside the body.

"Currently no commercially available technology can perform direct 3D printing inside the human body," Do told Reuters.

F3DB features a three-axis printing head that can bend and twist using hydraulics on the tip of a soft robotic arm. The printing nozzle can print pre-programmed shapes or can be operated manually if more complex or undetermined printing is required.

The smallest prototype has a diameter of approximately 11-13 millimetres (mm), similar to a commercial endoscope, but it could be scaled even smaller in the future.

"Soft robots (are) very good for working with the human body," Do, the director of the University of New South Wales Medical Robotics Lab, said.

"They can offer high flexibility and adaptability. This means they can fit to any area inside the human body."

Do believes that the device is on track for commercialisation in the next five to seven years, pending further clinical trials. (Reporting by Cordelia Hsu in Sydney; Editing by Alasdair Pal and Sonali Paul)