Nov.11, 2014 | By Alec

One of the most exciting and challenging areas in field of 3D printing technology must surely be bioprinting. Theoretically – and in several instances, practically as well – this can be used to artificially create blood vessels, vascular networks, organs, just about any cell structure and even DNA structures. Russian scientists are currently working 3D printable organs, but a team of scientists working for Autodesk are exploring the option of printing medicines for any disease, even cancer.

Genetic biologist Andrew Hessel

At the recent WIRED 2014 technology conference in London, held on 17 and 18 October, the cell biologist and genetic biologist Andrew Hessel discussed the possibilities of 3D printing personalized medicine. Working for the software and computer design giant Autodesk in San Francisco, Hessel is, in a nutshell, trying 'to make 3D printed cancer-fighting viruses.'

What? A biologist working for the company behind CAD programmes? While this might sound unusual, Hessel works for Autodesk's science lab, 'a lab to study labs'. As even human DNA and cell structures can be designed on a pc nowadays, this might not be such a strange combination as it seems.

These 3D printable cells are central to Hessel's approach. As he explained in his very interesting presentation, human cells are 'the most complex machine in the known universe', capable of doing 'fantastic computations all day long, run on sugars and last a long time.' And perhaps more amazing is the fact that DNA sequencing is currently allowing medical biologists explore all aspects of those cells, and even recreate these cell structures using bioprinting technology. Specifically, these printers take digital files and turn them into synthetic DNA, much like a FDM 3D printer turns STL files into objects.

In particular, Hessel is exploring the possibilities of printing virus cells, which he describes as 'the apps of the biological world.' These, he argues can be used to create personalized medicines that can affordably fight diseases that are still lethal or very difficult to cure, like cancer.

As he boldly stated, 'Cancer is actually a fairly easy disease. When you think about it, it's kind of an infection in your body, but with your own cells. A hundred years ago, we´d get infections with bacteria and die. With antibiotics, those problems just went away. I think that if we make better medicines, cancer can just go away as well.'

Of course, some forms of cancer can already be treated, but Hessel's approach will be far less destructive than chemo therapy. 'Right now, cancer treatment is somewhat like carpet-bombing, as it attacks all the fast growing cells. But we´re starting to get medicines that are really precisely targeted. Its breath-taking when used. I just think we need a lot more medicines that are personalized, as no two cancers are the same. It's your cells affecting your body.'

The main problem with current medical development is the sheer scale of testing required to get anything passed. But medicines will be a lot more effective when designed for a single person, and Hessel's approach is somewhat of a paradigm switch. 'We said "we're not making drugs for everyone, we're going to use these digital genetic engineering technologies to make drugs for one person at a time". This gets you around those large clinical trials, which is the most slow and expensive part of getting a drug approved.

To do this, you need a technology that is cheap and that is where 3D printing comes in. 'I'm trying to make specifically, 3D printed cancer fighting viruses. You can make really weak viruses that don't infect normal cells. We have defences against them in our bodies, but cancer cells are broken. These viruses, when infecting a cancer cell hack it, take it over, start producing more viruses, kill the cancer cells. It hacks the cancer to become a drug plant.'

And the 3D printing technology to do this already exists. Digital files of DNA can be booted to become virus particles. Using 3D printers like Hessel's DNA synthesizer 3D printer, these digital files can then be synthetically printed as very specific, cancer fighting viruses.

More amazingly, Hessel was already capable of printing one of these synthetic viruses for just $1000. 'And the cost of writing and reading DNA is falling very quickly. Now I just have to swap out the design to start making cancer fighting viruses. […] In the next few years I should be able to make a virus for about a $1. This opens up not just cancer antibiotics, but also vaccines, diagnostics, gene therapies and other genetic materials.' Even other diseases, like ebola, could be attacked in a similar way.

In short, 3D printing can indeed be used to fight cancer. Of course, these cancer-fighting viruses are still some years off, and might require a whole paradigm shift before they are realized. But it does certainly look like 3D printing is well on its way to changing to how we look at disease.

Check out Hessel's interesting lecture at the WIRED 2014 conference here:


Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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