Richard Dawkins once said in an interview with the LA Times: ‘I’m fascinated by the idea that genetics is digital. A gene is a long sequence of coded letters, like computer information. Modern biology is becoming very much a branch of information technology.’ To that end, 3D printing human organ tissue feels like the logical consequence of how biology is being re-imagined in the age of Big Data.
The idea of 3D printing functioning organs may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s slowly becoming a reality. With an ageing population putting an ever greater strain on the supply of organs, this is not before time, though the idea of growing an organ from scratch is not a new one. 3D printers have been used for some time for skin grafts, and researchers have previously used lab animals as hosts to grow functioning organs for people in need of transplants. However, the idea that they could be printed sounds both quicker, less horrifying, and a more scaleable operation.
Complex tissues are composed of many different types of cells precisely arranged in 3 dimensions. Bioprinting uses layer-by-layer fabrication methods to recreate these, using either lasers, or technology developed by Makoto Nakamura in 2002 that works in a similar way to household inkjet printers. Laser assisted bioprinters were invented first. Later, Laser Induced Forward Transfer (LIFT) - which was originally designed for inorganic molecules - was appropriated by the biological sciences. This technique was refined until researchers reported a cell survival rate of 95%.
Bioprinting has tremendous implications for transplant patients and pharmaceutical testing, and a number of firms are innovating with the technology. Perhaps most famously, Organovo had managed to print Liver Tissue, which they sell to pharmaceutical firms for drug toxicity testing. They hope eventually to produce patches of human tissue for failing organs, and even whole organs for transplant.
BioBots is another firm innovating in the market. They bring together the ability of high-end tissue fabrication - which often requires expensive machinery - with more inexpensive desktop 3D printing equipment. Their technology uses a cartridge technology similar to that of inkjet printers, capable of building up tissues at a resolution of 100 micrometers, which is then rapidly cured using a special blue light that does not damage the cells. In demonstration videos, they show how this technique can be used to produce a human ear.
Breakthrough research from researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) in Australia has even managed to create a 3D-printed layered structure that incorporates neural cells that mimics the structure of brain tissue.
There is big money coming into these programs from some major drugs companies, who see it as a way to safely test their products without being forced to use human guinea pigs or resort to animal testing. L’Oréal, Merck and Procter & Gamble have invested heavily in the creation of skin cells to test their products. Merck is working particularly closely with Organovo to produce liver and kidney tissues. With such substantial investment, and as the technology and our understanding advances, these seemingly small advances will only grow exponentially, which will could completely transform healthcare as we know it.