Bioprinting – transforming healthcare and research?
September 1, 2014
Bioprinting could transform the availability of organ transplants, revolutionise regenerative medicine and speed up drug testing. Still predominantly in the research phase, bioprinting’s capabilities and successes are growing.
Bioprinting uses a 3D printer to create tissue, bone and organs from biomaterials such as bio-compatible plastics, metals such as titanium, cells and an individual’s stem cells.
One of the earliest applications was ‘printing’ cells directly into major burns and other wounds, especially battle wounds from the Iraq and Afghan wars. That early research, started in 2008, is beginning to move into operating theatres. It reduces the risk of infection and the time taken for wounds to heal.
Body on a chip technology is another major area of application for bioprinting, rather than actual organs. It uses a similar approach to organ printing to put the functionality of organs onto a chip, so that they can be used for drug and toxicity testing. Liver and other functions have been achieved and a ‘full body’ on a chip is the aim of US research. The benefits will include faster and more effective drug development and reduced reliance on animal testing. About 30% of drugs fail at the human trial stage because of differences in functionality between animal and human tests. With the cost of drug development ranging from $3.7 to $12 billion, and an average of about $1 billion, and a time to market of 12 years, and drug companies facing ever greater challenges in developing effective drugs, the potential of body on a chip technology is huge.
More complex organs, such as eyes, kidneys, livers and hearts are under development. The main challenge in these larger organs is creating the patterns of veins to enable blood flow through the tissues. But eye cells have passed the proof of concept stage; as has a tiny kidney which functioned for 4 months; and a first ever liver has been predicted for 2014 – although fully functioning livers are not expected to be available for 20-30 years. Hearts are predicted to be one of the ‘easiest’ organs to bioprint because of the nature of its functions, kidneys and livers are more complex, but again will not be available for about a decade.
Small scale organ tissue samples are expected to be on the market this year. Liver, lung, breast and breast cancer tissue, and muscle tissues are all under development and will be sold to medical research labs soon, some as early as 2014.
Longer term, bioprinting could address the shortage of transplantable organs. Organ transplant waiting lists are growing: about 120,000 people in the US and about 64,000 in Europe are waiting for organs at any one time. Organ donations, primarily from deceased donors totalled only 9534 in the EU, enabling just over 30,000 transplants and a similar number of operations in the US too. Many die while waiting. Bioprinting organs using an individual’s own stem cells could not only increase the availability of organs but also improve survival rates with earlier intervention and lower rejection rates.
As the technologies to develop stem cells improve alongside those of bioprinting, we may see the requirement to store personal cells for future use. Such requirements to store your own cells might start with soldiers and emergency responders, or others likely to receive significant injury, so that, in the event of major injury, more rapid treatments are possible.
Bioprinting is expanding as a sector. Although research funding remains relatively low, in the USA, for example, bioprinting receives approximately $500 million, in comparison with $5 billion for cancer research and $2.8 billion for HIV/AIDS research, interest is growing. There are now approximately 80 institutions worldwide conducting research, developing the printer technologies and bio-materials. The global market was recently estimated to be worth $450 million in 2013, but almost double that by 2018 at $888 million*. And a new international master’s degree, the result of collaboration between universities in Australia, Germany and the Netherlands, should begin to develop the critical skills and multi-disciplinary approaches from engineering, cell biology, medicine, CAD, materials science and physics.