Bioprinting a healthier future

The unquestionably exciting field of 3D bioprinting is booming. It’s vibrant, determined, and sustained by a robust foundation of decades of research. Bioprinted organs aren’t yet being transplanted into human subjects, however, complex bioprinted human tissue patterns are vastly accelerating the field, and human tissue is being printed in labs in nearly every country. In a relatively recent breakthrough at the University of Newcastle, UK, human corneas were successfully 3D printed with the use of a bioprinter and bioink. All it took was scanning a patient’s eye, converting the data into a file for 3D printing, a suitable bioink made of alginate and collagen, stems cells, and 10 minutes of printing for the team to create a patient-specific cornea.

It’s not that simple of course. But the thrilling part is that it’s happening right now and there’s lots more of it on the way. Here are three applications in which bioprinting will continue playing a key role well into the future of medicine.

Patient-specific, 3D-printed human tissue

According to the University of Newcastle’s publication, approximately 10 million patients worldwide require surgery for corneal disorders caused by infections and another 5 million people are affected by a disease, or other causes such as burns, lacerations, or abrasion leading to corneal blindness.

It’s no secret there’s a notable shortage of corneas for transplants. Currently, one in 70 patients needing a new cornea receive one. Bioprinting could address this, and avoid the long and painful uncertainty of donor availability. Additionally, in a recent article, Immunological Ocular Disease, by James T. Rosenbaum and Phoebe Lin, the authors write that the most common cause of transplantation failure is immunologic rejection.

Bioprinting’s future in all this? Tissue made from bioink that is grown with a patient’s own cells would have more chances of being accepted by the patient’s body, thus possibly decreasing the risks of rejection by the immune system. This could, in turn, reduce the costs of post-surgery immunosuppressants, and potentially, the need for revision surgery.

Bioinks for pharma research

It can take a painstaking period of 7-10 years to develop a drug or medicine meant for human consumption and as much as USD 2.6 billion (EUR 2.3 billion). Typically, during the first two years, development occurs in vitro. The next two to three years set the stage for experimentation on animals.

Finally, if all goes as planned, human, or clinical trials can begin and can take as long as 5 years. It’s often these last stages of development that will determine if the drug trials are a success, and declare it the one out of nine drugs that make it to market. So low, and costly, are the odds. Bioprinting is on its way to disrupting this.

Now imagine. Testing on humans, without using humans. The possibility of testing drugs on more realistic models, at a lower cost, in thousandfold quantities, in less time. This could be the future. What effect would this have on development budget, protocols and workflows?

Even further down the supply chain, how would a complementary technology such as bioprinting affect humanity? The manufacturing, or bioprinting of human cells on an industrial scale could have a tremendous impact on cost and price reduction and in the long run, on the accessibility of drugs and medicine, which presently are unobtainable to a large part of the population.

Enhanced cell culturing with bioinks

The art of growing cells in controlled conditions outside their native environment has been evolving since the 1930s. From their use in vaccines, cancer research and protein therapeutics, cell culture systems are nothing if not instrumental in cell biology research. Add bioinks to the equation, and this facilitates researchers in creating unique formulations required for specific applications, such as muscle or lung tissue. They have the capacity to support living cells to facilitate their adhesion, proliferation and differentiation during maturation, extending by far the conditions in which cells can be observed and tested on.

Cell culturing in the future? With automated 3D printing processes using bioinks and bioprinters, researchers will be able to study organ and tissue models on a much larger scale than before. Scientists, researchers, students, to name a few stakeholders, will have the opportunity to grow cells in much more ideal artificial conditions, design more realistic procedures and obtain enhanced results.

Bioprinting the way to a healthier world

It will definitely be a solid ten to fifteen years before we get to the point of 3D bioprinting a simple organ, or even simpler, cartilage tissue, and transplanting it into a human subject. Even with a successfully printed organ for example, creating the microenvironment for a functioning vasculature— blood vessels surrounding the organ—  remains an obstacle.

But these are obstacles scientists are ready to face. We print today what, until recently, has been living in imaginations and on paper. Bioprinting helps researchers understand and visualize new difficulties, and paves the way to innovative solutions.

A fast growing field

The biotech field is growing fast. This speed is matched with educational programs to keep research and development at a competitive pace. In the past 5 years, there’s been a massive growth of courses and now, there are even PhD and postdoc programs dedicated to bioprinting.

Countless publications have surfaced all over the world and biotech companies are more and more supporting academia with their products and services. In essence, biotech is becoming its own field of research. There’s something inspiring on the horizon, and it’s the beautiful versatility of bioprinting in action.