Feb 9, 2016 | By Andre
Back in 2011, a surgeon named Anthony Atala gave a TED talk on the potential of 3D printing using living cells. At the time, I was blown away by this potential and I imagine the 2.5 million viewers that have since watched the video were equally impressed.
Five years on, the promise of 3D bioprinting remains intact, and even though it might take some time before we can transplant 3D printed organs into a living body, breakthroughs are happening more frequently than ever. Earlier this year for example, Organovo, the same company behind that original TED talk, set up commercial operations that focused on 3D bioprinting human liver cells.
And now, less than a month on, a team of engineers at the University of California, San Diego has announced they’ve successfully 3D printed tissue that comes close to matching the human liver’s complex structure and function.
The importance of their efforts has everything to do with speeding up the process of testing drugs for market release. Shaochen Chen, Nano Engineering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering suggests that “it typically takes about 12 years and $1.8 billion to produce one FDA-approved drug. That’s because over 90 percent of drugs don’t pass animal tests or human clinical trials.”
Their 3D bioprinting tool will allow pharmaceutical companies to bypass human and animal trials during the early stages of drug testing; something that has traditionally been a big bottleneck in the process. Chen further states that “we’ve engineered a functioning liver tissue that matches what you’d see under a microscope.”
While certainly different than the 3D printers most of us are probably used to by now, 3D bioprinting still follows the same general formula of the layering down of matter in a very controlled manner. In this case, UV light is used to form a honeycomb pattern of 900-micrometer-sized hexagons (each containing human liver cells) followed by the 3D printing of endothelial and mesenchymal supporting cells in the spaces between the stem-cell-containing hexagons. Here, the UV light is the trigger, and when applied in a low amount, acts as the catalyst needed to congeal the cells into the desired shape.
An immediate advantage is that the entire structure, coming in at 3 x 3mm with a thickness of 0.2mm, takes just seconds to finish while other methods with similar end results take hours to accomplish. Additionally, tests have shown that their process was able to mimic liver functions over a longer period while maintaining a higher level of the the specific characteristics needed for drug testing.
Even though this news is just coming out, it’s all made possible by a process that’s been under development in Chen’s lab since winning a grant from the National Institute of Health to study tissue growth with functional blood vessels back in 2010. So while big announcements like these are certainly a long time in the making, Chen’s continued enthusiasm for the 3D bioprinting is something to be optimistic over. On what’s to come, Chen thnks that “this will serve as a great drug screening tool for pharmaceutical companies and that our 3D bioprinting technology opens the door for patient-specific organ printing in the future.”
Organovo 3D BioPrinting Demonstration video
Posted in 3D Printing Application
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