Bioprinting is coming of age
An extension of 3D printing, which is used in medicine and healthcare, is the bioprinting. Prosthetics have been receiving 3D treatment and is becoming cheaper and more functional but with bioprinting it takes 3D printing well inside the body so that veins, bones and soon organs can be printed. This will transform the effectively the drug development and availability of organ transplants.
What is Changing?
Although it is still in the research phase, bioprinting is becoming a hot topic with its capabilities and successes are growing. Just like 3d printing, bioprinting uses a range of materials that includes bio-compatible plastics, metals such as titanium, cells and individual’s stem cells. To this date, success rate is achieved slowly especially in simpler areas. For example, where thin tissues layers are needed like veins, arteries and now a trachea for child. Bioprinting has created a bionic ear that will be capable of restoring one’s hearing by combining cells with electronics. It is also being used to print cells directly into severe burns and other major wounds that are typically for battle wounds.
Continuous developments are in process most especially for complex organs like eyes, kidneys, liver and hearts. A challenging part for these larger organs is the creation of the pattern of the veins that will enable blood flow from the tissues. Eye cells have passed the proof of concept stage, so as with a tiny kidney which functioned for 4 months and a first ever liver was predicted in the year 2014, although a fully functional liver is not expected to be available in the next 20-30 years. The predicted easiest organs to bioprint is the heart and because of the nature of its functions, kidney and livers are more complicated and again will not be available in the next decade. Bioprinting is continuing to grow and expand as a sector. Currently, there are about 80 institutions worldwide conducting research, developing the printer technologies and application of the capabilities in even more complex areas. In spite of the development and growing potential, research funding remains to be relatively low. At present, in the USA, bioprinting receives approximately $500 million, in comparison with the $5 billion budget for cancer research and $2.8 billion for HIV/Aids research.
The announcement of the first ever Master’s degree and the first global conference is another indication of the growing potential of bioprinting. The Master’s degree is the result of an international collaboration between Universities in Australia, Germany and the Netherlands- which will begin to develop the range of critical skills that will be a mix of IT, CAD and biolgy.
Rather than an actual organ, body on a chip technology may be one of the first major areas of application for bioprinting. Both use the same similar approach to organ printing but aim to put the functionality of organs onto a chip, so that they can be used for drug and toxicity testing. Liver and other functions have been achieved and a ‘full body’ on chip is the target of US Research. Faster and more effective drug developments are the benefits since 30% of drugs fail at the human trial stage because of differences in functionality between animal and human tests. With the high cost of drug development and challenges drug companies face in developing effective drugs, the potential of body on a chip technology is high.
Small scale organ tissue samples are expected to be available in the market this year. The following are still under development and most likely will be sold to medical research labs soon: Liver, Lung, Breast and Breast Cancer Tissue and Muscle Tissue.
In the long run, bioprinting will be able to address the shortage of organs. The organ transplant waiting lists are growing worldwide that many die waiting. Bioprinting organs using an individual’s own stem cells could not only increase the availability of organs but it also improves survival rates with earlier intervention and lower rejection rates.
Bio-hackers and criminals and even terrorists could take advantage and abuse the technology. Bio-hackers have already posted online how to bioprint e.coli into petri dish. The main problem may be inadequate security rather than deliberate malpractice that could lead to infections. Terror groups and criminals can take advantage of this technology to spread infected biological organisms.
With the developing technology of stem cells alongside that of bioprinting, we may see the requirement to store personal cells for future use. This requirement may start with Soldiers and emergency responders and others who are likely to receive significant injury, to preserve their own cells so that in case of a major injury, more rapid treatments are possible.
Bioprinting is still in its early stages and still has a long way to go to fully grow its potential as a technology and funding is highly needed. Investment is needed for its potential to be achieved and success. The opportunity is already there and skills in many areas are still in need.
1. Shaping Tomorrow, by: Sheila Moorcroft http://www.shapingtomorrow.com/home/alert/225863-Bioprinting-is-coming-of-age