3D Bioprinting: Truth is Beautiful

— How Close are We to Artificial Tissues and Organs?

May 3–5, 2017, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Often, whenever people hear the term “healthcare 3D printing”, a common response from them is, “yes, I saw that on the news, are we really printing kidneys?” Although the field of healthcare 3d printing includes a much wider range of healthcare applications using 3D printing (or additive manufacture) technologies, what 3D bioprinting can do (or not do) has been a mystery to many. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to find out myself during the first Printing the Future of Therapeutics in 3D conference, in Vancouver, Canada.

The conference lasts three days, and was co-hosted by Dr. Christian Naus from University of British Columbia, and CEO of Aspect Biosystems, Tamer Mohamed. The event gathered many leading scientists in the field, including MIT, Harvard, UBC, UW, among others. A few commercial representatives were also present, including Aspect Biosystems, Biobots, GSK, and of course, a few lawyers.

I had a chance to join on last day of the conference. There was no theatric display of new technologies, but plenty of in-depth scientific presentations and intimate networking and discussions. It was reassuring to see an elite line up of speakers because some questions will be answered, and if there is no answer, at least an honest “I don’t know”.

What are 3D bioprinting scientists working on?

    • Generate 3D complex disease model such as spinal neural tissues (Dr. Stephainie Willerth’s work), brain glioma model (Wun Chey Sin’s work). One can think of these as the “Rapid Prototyping” of a disease using 3D printing.
  • Tissue engineering for tissue replacement, for example, musculoskeletal tissue (Dr. Grainne Cunnifee). One can think of this moving from RP to “production” level of bioprinting.

By the way, none of these is used on actual human.

What is the connection between 3D Printing and bioprinting?

– Both processes use the concept of additive manufacture, which means a digitally controlled manufacture process by adding layers of materials one on top of another to eventually create a 3D object. In the case of bioprinting, the material is often biocompatible materials laced with cellular components. Similar to regular 3D printing, bioprinting also uses common processes like FDM, or SLA. However, because the end goal of bioprinting is to produce a living piece of tissue, modifcations are needed to create the type of biocompatible structures.

– Some updates in bioprinting techniques include:

o New SLA bioprinting technique that uses visible light spectrum (rather than UV light) by Dr. Keekyoung Kim

o New microfluidics-enabled bioprinter that promises high throughput 3D bioprinting option by Dr. Axel Guenther.

o New SLA printing technology for making lab-on-a-chip by Dr. Albert Folch.

Microfluidic Art by FolchLab

How long before we can see an organ 3D printed?

Needless to say, the implication of 3D printing implantable human organs not only means millions of lives saved or improved, it also means a complete disruption of the trillion-dollar healthcare industry. Transplant or not, having a replacement tissue or organ will completely disrupt the supply chain of healthcare. The only problem is that, we are NOT there yet. FDA regulation is a foreseeable challenge to synthetic organs, but there is currently no engineered tissue used for treatment purpose in human body. Researchers and CEOs alike are reluctant in answering when we will have a true human tissue replacement. However, what is in the immediate horizon is a potentially scalable industry focusing on how to improve current therapeutic R&D pipeline with advanced technologies like bioprinting. However, even establishing value of bioprinting as a more effective disease model for pharma R&D is still in early stage, said Dr. Claire Jeong from GSK. At the end of the day, it will require a collaborative effort between academia and industry to fund, develop, and fully commercialize the technology for a scalable solution. One of the most important recent progress is the establishment of IQ Consortium, where the pharma companies provide a guideline for startups and academia for product development. It is worth a look.

Remembering how hard it was for 3DHEALS to find the bioprinting community two years ago when we just started, it is very exciting to me personally to see the community is finally taking shape. Most importantly, I saw a real bioprinter in action for the first time in my life.