Bioprinting: Creating Human Organs Using 3D Printing
With new developments in the field of biofabrication, it is now possible to print out human organs. This is thanks to the development of 3D bio-printer technology. Traditional 3D printer technology relies on the process of additive manufacturing.
This process involves gradual addition of materials from the printer that eventually develops into an object. The technician involved in the process determines the design of the object by sending to the printer a copy of the 3D design that he wants to print out. The printer is then able to build on several layers producing an actual physical object.
Different companies have used the additive manufacturing technology for years. The technology is very useful in saving time and the costs involved in the manufacturing process. It reduces the need for the staff involved in the process of manufacturing. However, the price of this technology is a limitation for some companies wishing to join the fray of additive manufacturing. It is no surprise that it is only companies such as Boeing, Honeywell, and General Electric who use this technology. These companies have used 3D printers to manufacture glass, metal, ceramics, and several other components involved in the manufacturing process.
It is the success of traditional 3D printers that got researchers thinking about how to replicate the process in the medical field. A breakthrough in the human health industry occurred when Organovo came up with the first human tissue bioprinters. The bioprinters produced by Organovo, an American company, were capable of printing any human tissue that may be useful in regenerative therapies or medical research. This news excited medical practitioners involved in medical transplants and patients who needed human tissue. The technology was also a glimmer of hope in the medical research industry.
It meant that it would now be possible to print out any human tissue for use in research. The bio-ink in the bioprinters generates human tissue using the similar process involved in additive manufacturing. The bio-ink is made of live human cells. By successfully mixing up the contents bio-ink, the bioprinter is able to generate human tissue. Using the initial research results by Organovo, several researchers produced bioprinters to produce different human tissue. For example, researchers at Wake Forest University collaborating with the Armed Forces Institute for Regenerative Medicine produced a 3D skin printer to help in wound healing.
The same researchers also printed out kidney cells. Cornell University also replicated this success. Researchers at this university used bioprinters to print out heart valves, knee cartilage, and bone implants. After these successful feats, several researchers from different institutions have successfully printed out different human organs. While this is encouraging, the main challenge in the industry was printing out functional human organs. The human tissue printed out so far by the bioprinters was useless in any medical or research related procedures. New research was necessary to produce more advanced bioprinters. Heriot-Watt University took up the challenge of researching and producing such printers.
A journal called Biofabrication recently published the efforts of researchers at Heriot-Watt University. The team of researchers, led by Will Shu created a more effective bio-printer to produce human tissue. Working with Roslin Cellab, they produced a printer with adjustable valves. The adjustable valves enable the user to control the rate of release the cells of the bio-ink. While the researchers were quick to point out the need for further research on this technology, Roslin Cellab announced plans to release commercial versions of the printer. This is encouraging news for those involved in research on human cell tissue production.
This printer is able to organize cells from the bio-ink in tiny spheres. This is an added benefit as the cells used remain alive after the production of the tissue. This is an improvement of the earlier versions of bioprinters since the human tissue is viable for use in tissue transplant and human tissue research. The printer focuses on producing human stem cell tissue as opposed to the tissue produced by previous printers. As noted by Will Shu, the new printer produces accurate human tissue useful in vitro-drug testing and testing of toxicity in new drugs. This is a great step in the science of biofabrication.
This new bio-printer is more efficient in producing human tissue. Researchers are able to control the amount of tissue released during the bioprinting process. This goes a long way in saving the costs involved in the process considering the price of bio-ink. The efficiency of this printer is also welcome as it can successfully produce viable stem cells. This Reduces Costs involved in the research and development of new drugs. Transferring these benefits to consumers leads to lower drug costs. Further, the ability to produce stem cells is a serious plus for organ transplants.
Nevertheless, there is need for more research since this technology is still at its infancy. Leading in the efforts for further research is the University of Iowa. This institution recently launched a multidisciplinary venture dubbed Advanced Manufacturing Technology (AMTech) group. This group is working on contributing to improve on the current state of knowledge in the bioprinting of human tissue. The intended goal of forming this multidisciplinary group is working on producing functional human tissue in the next 10 years. So far, researchers working in the project produced a functional bioprinter. They are still working on coming up with bio-ink that is up to the task. Since this is a long term project, many are crossing their fingers on the possibilities it holds.
If successful, this technology will revolutionize our medical industry. It holds promise for the development of more effective medicines targeted towards curing a specific disease. This technology will assist people who need transplants. With the current situation of waiting lists for organ donors, the technology holds the possibility of improving such situations. The commercial production of this technology will also cripple the illegal trade in human organs fueled by lack of viable organ tissue. In the next 10 years (See also The Evolution of 3D Printing), tech pundits are keeping an eye on the developments in the biofabrication industry.