Do you foresee a future when we won’t need to create artificial human organs or harvest them from animals? Well, that future is already here. Cutting-edge companies are using futuristic technology to push the boundaries of 3D bioprinting, potentially making organ donation a thing of the past.
When Shinya Yamanaka first found a way to produce Induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cells, it opened the door to a whole new world of medicine. The ability to ‘reprogram’ adult cells to grow into any kind of cell gives us almost endless opportunities. And 3D bioprinting is part of that revolution. It’s now possible to use ‘ink’ made from living cells and 3D print human tissue, bringing several benefits.
First, new drugs and therapies can be directly tested on human tissue, rather than beginning with animals and then moving through to human trials, before finally bringing them to market. 3D bioprinting will significantly shorten the time it takes to offer new healthcare solutions to doctors and patients.
Also, it will be possible to use the patient’s own cells to create the base material for 3D printing. High-resolution scanning will inform the printing process so an exact replica of each person’s individual organs can be created. Organs will be completely bespoke. This eliminates issues such as the need to take anti-rejection drugs.
So now the race is on to produce fully working organs suitable for human transplant, making organ donation unnecessary.
Here are five cutting-edge companies who are forging ahead with new techniques to bioprint human organs successfully.
Based in San Diego, Organovo is probably the best-known company in the 3D bioprinting world. Its stated aim is “to build living human tissues that are proven to function like native tissues.” The company believes that it can potentially accelerate the process of discovering new drugs, which will not only result in quicker solutions but also reduce the cost of new drug production too.
Organovo’s ExVive human liver and kidney tissues are already being used for testing in toxicology and pre-clinical drug testing, and it is also conducting “early research on specific tissues for therapeutic use in direct surgical applications.”
Already well-known in South Korea for its desktop 3D printers, Rokit is now moving into the realm of 3D bioprinting, supported by a $300m government grant. The company is currently working on five bio projects, including one to produce human skin.
“We’re thinking of low-hanging fruit,” explained Dr. Heon Ju Lee, CTO and BioResearch Director. “Skin is simply the three layers. We can just print the cells uniformly and they can survive.”
However, the project not without its challenges. It takes around five days for the blood vessels to grow within the skin and begin to support its viability, but currently the 3Dprinted cells can only survive for two.
“That’s our biggest challenge at this time,” said Dr. Lee, “But I think it can be solved in a year.”
3. Aspect Biosystems
Aspect Biosystems has a simple goal: to produce a whole human organ. The company has a clear vision for the future, outlined on its website. “Our vision is a future where drugs are developed without the use of animals, where doctors know how a patient will react to a drug before prescribing it, and where lifesaving transplant organs are created, not harvested.”
President and CEO Tamer Mohamed explains the company’s aims in detail in his TEDx talk3D Printing Human Tissue: Where Engineering Meets Biology, outlining Aspect Biosystems’ quest to create a “lab on a printer”. Ultimately, the company aims to have a portfolio of 3D printed human tissues, suitable for implanting into patients.
4. Biolife 4D
A relative newcomer to the world of 3D bioprinting companies, Biolife4D is taking on a significant challenge: “to 3D bioprint a viable human heart suitable for transplant. When you consider the structure of the heart, with its four chambers and network of blood vessels, this would be no mean feat. But CEO Steven Morris is very confident that the time is right because all the necessary developments in different fields have now come together.
“You have the advances in the life sciences, computational medicine, bioengineering, and in bioprinting,” he said. “That’s the incredible thing, but it’s the most exciting.” Biolife4D has assembled a world-class team that encompasses the fields of regenerative medicine, stem cell biology, 3D printing techniques and computing technology to work collaboratively to create a heart.
5. Cyfuse Biomedical
Japan is already well advanced in research into iPS cells, so for Cyfuse Biomedical, it seemed like a natural step to move into 3D organ bioprinting. On its website, President Takakiyo Kawano explains the importance of the company’s name to its vision.
“’Cyfuse’ is a created name by combining ‘Cyto’ and ‘Fusion’”, he says. “This symbolizes tissue regeneration as well as fusion of biology and engineering. Our name also contains our passion to improve quality of people‘s life by innovation.”
So Cyfuse Medical wishes “to develop an innovative method to cure diseases through regenerative medicine, tissue engineering, and drug discovery.” The company has already produced organs such as blood vessels, digestive and urinary organs, and miniature livers, but it’s aiming to cover a wide range of therapies, including spinal cord regeneration for paralyzed patients.
What aspects do these companies have in common?
It seems there are two key principles that all these companies have in common. First, they all have a passion for improving people’s lives.
“We’re talking about saving potentially millions of people’s lives; life and death for countless people,” said Steven Morris.
And Dr, Lee agrees: “We want to spread our knowledge around the world at a very affordable price, so if one or two can be successful, it’s going to be a big change for the entire world. That is our goal.”
The second key feature is that all companies recognize collaboration is the key. No single organization can be expert in all the separate components necessary to build a successful 3D bioprinting company – the skills needed are too diverse. To truly forge ahead, companies are creating platform technology solutions to bring together different specializations.
“We call it a bio-regeneration platform manufacturing platform,” explains Dr. Lee. “That includes materials, 3D printers, the tissue engineering process, and all kinds of protocols.
Even the doctors that do the surgery.”
Steven Morris thinks of it like a puzzle: “The people that actually made the pieces of the puzzle are, for the first time, standing around the table. And rather than them just concentrating on their one individual piece like they always have in the past, they’re now seeing how that piece of the puzzle fits together with the other pieces.”
What skills and qualifications do these companies need from their workers?
Naturally, there are many different roles within the 3D bioprinting field, and if you have skills and experience in general 3D printing, these would translate well. Paysa.com has detailed career information about bioprinting jobs, such as Research & Development Scientist, 3D Printing Engineer, and 3D printing Specialist. And of course, there are many other skills which are required within bioprinting, including 3D designing, 3D CAD modeling, bioengineering, and software engineering.
But company directors are clear that there are two qualities they value above all else.
“You have to have a passion for what you’re doing,” Steven Morris said. “ I know that to have the highest levels of success, the primary motivating factor is not money.”
Dr. Lee also feels that technical skills and ambition are not the most important considerations when he’s hiring. Because of the way his company works, he looks for problem-solving skills, collaborative skills, and positive energy – finding new solutions and working well with others are essential in a collaborative team.
He puts it this way: “Positive energy and passion; those two things are the key criteria when we hire people.”