Bioprinting: A Multilayered Advancement
Bioprinting may allow us to accomplish what is shown above in the future: the ability to manufacture biomedical products and tissues through 3D-printing, including organs like the heart (Source).
Imagine one day a FedEx truck pulls up to your house, drops a package on your front porch, and drives away. You open the package, reach in, and find a container with a large label on the top. It reads: “Sample Human Heart Printed in a Lab. Treat with Caution and Store at Room Temperature.” Congrats. You just received your order for a sample human heart that was made in a laboratory.
Sounds like something straight out of your favorite sci-fi movie, doesn’t it? Only a few decades ago, the prospect of bioprinting, or the ability to manufacture biomedical products and tissues through 3D printing, was not only unrealistic but wholly unfathomable. The 3D printer itself had only been newly invented in the mid-1980s. Today, however, thanks to the rapid advancements in bioinnovation and technology in the past decade, the application of 3D printing to healthcare and medicine is being realized.
And it’s thriving.
We humans are reaching tremendous milestones in the field of bioprinting. 3D-printed hearts, kidneys, and livers have all been successfully developed in laboratories just in the past few years. Indeed, many scientists and engineers have begun to transition from exploring what bioprinted materials can be developed to how they can be used by clients, patients, and other researchers. To provide you with a brief overview of bioprinting, this article will cover some technologies making this all possible, potential implications of bioprinting (both the pros and cons), and what to look for as we move ahead.
What is Bioprinting and how does it work?
Simply put, bioprinting is a technology that will allow us to print cells, tissues, and organs through a specialized 3D-printer. Very similar to the standard 3D-printer, a “bio-printer” will print a product layer by layer, with the utilization of computer visual software (such as AutoCAD) to build and design a finished product. However, instead of the standard plastic ink base, bioprinting utilizes bioink, a base that consists of microgels packed with vital nutrients and vitamins needed for cells to survive and grow.
Why Does it Matter?
Bioprinting has incredible implications for a multitude of areas. Three promising areas include organ transplants, drug testing, and cosmetics.
Organ Transplants - Today, 17 people will die waiting for an organ transplant. And by the time you finish reading this article, another person will have been added to a transplant waiting list. Thousands around the globe are waiting for organ transplants. Currently, shortages in donors and health concerns pose significant threats and obstacles to the successful implementations of organ transplantation. The ability to print a heart, kidney, or other needed organs on demand will take us one step further towards developing life-saving technologies. Although the practice of bioprinted organs has not yet become standard, major breakthroughs have been actuated. Interesting ones include the first bioprinted heart, liver, and kidney tissue.
Drug Testing - Instead of testing drugs on humans or animals during clinical trials, researchers can use bioprinted tissues and cells as a more practical and ethical alternative. In fact, in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, many researchers have been turning to 3D-printed organs for drug testing. For instance, a research team at Wake Forest University is developing miniature 3D-printed lungs and colons to test drugs currently in development to treat COVID-19. In addition, several scientists are working on “Horizon 2020-funded 3DLT project” to develop immunotherapies against lymph node cancer. The core of their research focuses on doing so through the creation of a 3D-lymph node that functions very similarly to human lymph nodes.
Cosmetics - Bioprinting also makes the custom printing of skin tissue and hair possible, which has great potential in the industry of cosmetics. Using a given patient’s cells, scientists can produce new skin tissue that is compatible with the original patient (Chemistry World). Currently, many researchers have already partnered with companies in the skincare industry.
Potential to eventually save millions of lives by providing a reliable and accessible means to print tissues and organs
Reduce wait times and save patients lots of money
Eliminate the need for repeated surgeries, especially in children, since bioprinting is generally more flexible and customizable
Allow drugs and medicines to be tested on patients’ tissue instead of patients themselves
Potential Challenges and Obstacles
Ethical issues include printing organs for human enhancement (e.g. stronger bones, better lungs, etc.) as it might be said to manipulate someone else
Safety concerns including whether bioprinted products are compatible with clients, whether bioprinting on clinical samples applies to population, etc.
Tough regulations (e.g. the FDA) largely due to concerns over ethics and safety, which also makes it extremely difficult to release products that can be mass distributed. Currently, in the US, 3D printed organs do not fit under any category of law
The need for tremendous amounts of research from a variety of disparate fields such as healthcare, law, technology, and economics
Importantly, these are just a mere glance at the potential risks and obstacles that come with bioprinting. Together, these challenges not only spark discussion regarding the ethics and safety of bioprinting, but also ensure that the progress being made has been made with close consideration, analysis, and research.
Bioprinting looks extremely promising in its potential for organ transplantations as well as other fields like cosmetics and pharmacy. However, it’s also important to realize that with these benefits also come a variety of ethical, health and legal challenges. With current rates of technological development, the reality of 3D-printed organs and tissues used in practice seems just around the corner. For some this seems like a win-win situation; for others, this might not be the most optimistic news. In any case, it’s important to look more into this field and gain a fuller understanding for ourselves not only to weigh the pros and cons of bioprinting, but also to ultimately empower ourselves to pursue the prudent advancements of bioprinting technologies. To get you started, here is a list of sources you can check out to learn more about bioprinting!