Author: Joshuah Gagan
I don’t think I am the first person to be astonished by 3D printing. Then again, I’m not sure if I am the second person to be astonished by 3D bioprinting, a phenomenon that has been consistently evolving in the past decade. The launch of such a huge biomedical advance has put scientists on a course to change the future, where every biomedical lab will have a bioprinter ready to disperse samples of cells, tissues, and one day organs. But a phenomenon can only last so long until it loses interest. By that I mean when, relatively, will we start inventing the next revolution in technology? As of today, the furthest advancement in bioprinting was the full-scale print of an artificial kidney, an almost-perfect structure with vascularity and function. But that was 2011. We’re close to 2019, and nothing has happened so far. So what will?
I’d like to think a ‘hype’, or as it is traditionally called a fad, can last as long as the audience can be engaged before it becomes a dud. But such a scientific field shouldn’t be necessarily a phenomenon, especially in our biomedical community. Yet, it’s treated as one. There aren’t many scientists utilizing the advances behind bioprinting as most underestimate it’s potential. Most labs even consider bioprinters as a paperweight, collecting dust in a corner. The possible reason: today, there is no use for bioprinting, as a majority of its industry has no real understanding of the field itself.
For what it is, it’s a great field to enter into. Besides it’s wow factor, bioprinting accelerates the scaffolding process for tissue engineers, increases accuracy, and rapidly develops structures in less time than it would by hand. This is a critical achievement, as tissue replacement and organ production can save millions of lives on the organ donor list. There are even multiple articles that reference advancements and treatments on bioprinting. Some examples include in situ wound healing/skin regeneration for burn victims, revitalized tissue replacements for sensitive tissue areas including the heart and lungs, and in some cases, regenerated full organs including ears, noses, and hearts (though pending).1
Ergo it begs the question of what barriers prevent technologies like these from coming into healthcare. And the answer is overestimation. Several companies in the mid-2010s came out to claim bioprinting is capable of reproducing organs through their novel printers. Companies, such as BioBots, Organovo, and RegenMAT have all at some point claimed to conceive an organ in production. However, it was stated as more of an accessory to their long-term business plan, though advertised differently in media and conferences. Truth is, only one doctor has actually printing an organ, and that same doctor admits that there are many steps to take before producing organs on a larger scales. Bioprinting is not just by clicking a button and the organ comes to life.” this is actually a new technology we’re working on now. In reality, we now have a long history of doing this.”2 There are multiple biomolecules and several other interactions that occur in the biomaterials that require investigation before pursuing these innovations.
He’s not wrong. In fact, bioprinting is summed up as printing out biomaterials with cells injected, in hopes of producing tissue. Overall, there are just a few more ink reservoirs with their own extruders, each containing growth factors or cells. The real question is: how do we organize all of the components to create artificial tissues or organs? And that is really the science behind it. It’s highly improbable to print out all of the materials in hopes of producing something organic. But what we can work on is understanding why and how these artificial tissues work to an advantage in bioprinting tissues. That is where it’s true potential lies.
Although vascularization is one thing, there are many more aspects of bioprinting to be researched. In the past few years, a couple of different advancements have come about to revitalize the field. Rather than try to resurrect it as a phenomenon, scientists are changing the community’s perspective into reality. Most focus has been on vascularization, a subfield in bioprinting has not yet been well developed. Carnegie Mellon is pushing boundaries by influencing new techniques into vascularization, such as FRESH printing. This allows the printer to dispense material into a gelatinous structure and keeps the mechanical integrity of the printed structure. It not only keeps it stable but also controls the rate of flow and prevents error in prints. The idea was conceived in 2015 and some articles have attracted keen scientists to the subfield. If there is enough evidence to support it, it can definitely accel the process of transplanting organs entirely.
But it’s promise and potential are enough to encourage scientists to give their support and reinvigorate bioprinting. Perhaps today from now, one will witness the potential behind artificial tissues as they are implanted into someone’s heart. Today from now, no one will have to be impatient to await tissue implants and skip the line. Today from now, we’ll see bioprinting at its pinnacle instead of imaging what good it can bring.
(The question is: what do you think the world will look like when you know you can print an organ?)
- TED, 2011, https://www.ted.com/talks/anthony_atala_printing_a_human_kidney/transcript
- Science Advances, 2015, http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/9/e1500758.full