Updated: Sep 30
The concept of 3D bio-printing, or the printing of living cells, is one of the more niche areas of additive manufacturing that makes for a great article headline. The reality of the current state of the art, however, is often quite disappointing. As it stands, the technology is in its infancy and nowhere near commercialisation, with universities, research institutions, and government-backed bodies largely leading the charge.
Despite the nascent stage of bio-printing, the use and application of the technology is finding a lot of traction in the biomedical field.
The Kenzan method
Pioneered at Japan’s Saga University, the Kenzan method is one of the more well-known and developed methods of bioprinting. It involves skewering a culture of cells called spheroids onto an array of micro needles (the Kenzan) and waiting for them to partially fuse. Once the cells are able to support their own structure, the needles are retracted and the cells are nurtured and grown into a usable tissue patch.
While the method has garnered some promising results over the decades, namely with the printing of nerve structures and functional heart tissue in rodents, it is limited by its size capabilities. The needle arrays tend to be miniscule and costly to manufacture, meaning it has difficulties scaling up to a useful ‘human size’. The cells skewered on the array also need to be of the same type - usually pluripotent stem cells - so a complex multi-tissue organ is completely out of the question.
Some of the companies working in this field include -
Cellink - is a 3D bio-printing company based out of United States that is focussed on tissue re-engineering and bio-printing of organs. The NASDAQ listed company provides labs and pharmaceutical companies around the world bio-printing solutions including bio-printers, bioinks and imaging systems.
Regemat - is a Spanish company focussed on providing research labs and universities with solutions focussed on bio-printing, issue engineering and regenerative medicines. The company provides printers and biomaterials. Its bio-printing systems can be used for the printing of various types of tissues such as cartilage, skin, bone, cardiac tissue etc.
Organovo - is a bio-printing companies based out of California, which uses its bio-printing technology to disrupt the drug discovery process. It studies 3d printed models to develop novel therapies. Its NovoGen Bioprinter Platform is capable of bio-printing healthy liver, kidney, intestine, skin, vascular, bone, skeletal muscle, eye, breast and pancreatic tumour.
3DBio Therapeutics - is a bio-printing company which manufacturers living tissues implants for therapeutic applications. The company’s technology enables creation of patient specific living tissues as a therapeutic to treat disease. The company is currently developing tissues for craniofacial and spinal conditions. It is also developing tissues for microtia, Herniation of the intervertebral disc and Degenerative Disc Disease.
Other companies working on bioprinted therapeutic include Aspect Biosystems & Biogelx.
Aspect is developing a pancreatic cell that could completely transform the way Type 1 diabetes is treated. If successful, T1 diabetes patient would have to take daily insulin injection, as bioprinted pancreatic cells can be implanted to generate insulin.
Bioprinting aboard the ISS
The other major bioprinting method entails a more conventional cell deposition process using a nozzle. This is great for bone structures, but what about soft tissues like muscle and organs? Gravity tends to be a problem in this scenario, as soft tissues are incapable of supporting their own weight without collapsing into a hot mess here on Earth. This is why Florida-based microdispensing specialist nScrypt looked to the stars, and developed the 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF), which has been on board the ISS since late 2019.
The 3D BFF is currently the only bioprinter on (and off) this world capable of fabricating self-supporting soft tissues, complete with blood vessels, in the microgravity of space. In fact, in May of 2020, NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan used the bioprinter to complete the first functional 3D bioprinting experiment in space - a human knee meniscus.
While a meniscus is a relatively simple structure, the multi-million dollar experiment marked the bleeding edge of soft tissue bioprinting. The company, along with NASA, ultimately aims to develop the facility to be able to print whole transplantation organs for astronauts on intergalactic voyages, but has stated that this is indeed still a few decades off.
The road to 3D printed organs
Examining the state of the technology, it's clear that whole 3D printed organs may be reserved for the latter half of the century. However we should see a shift from academia focused studies to increased adoption by commercial players like large pharmaceutical companies during the course of the next decade. We could also witness increased traction and demand for bio-printed therapeutics.
One of the major driver that could accelerate the technology evolution is investment from private sector, which is currently distancing itself from a technology that still sounds like science fiction.
When they do finally come to fruition, however, they will have major implications for the logistics of organ donation, as patients will no longer have to stick it out on a waiting list and hope for the best. Using a patient’s own stem cells as feedstock, the bio-printed organs are also much more likely to be accepted by the body, enabling patients to live a life free of immunosuppressant drugs.
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