For those involved in the medical and engineering fields, this is set to be a very exciting time. The expansion of bio-printing is poised to revolutionize the world of medicine, from emergency care to drug testing. In fact, some would say that revolution has already begun.
Bio-printing is an offshoot of 3D-printing, in which specialized printers are given the parameters of physical objects and then “print” them by putting down very thin layers of material to build the item from scratch. In this way virtually any object imaginable can be produced with sufficient printing material. Bio-printing works in much the same manner by “printing” cellular tissues in a 3D matrix to produce viable blood vessels, organs, and even bones. These fabrications are indistinguishable from their organically grown counterparts and can serve the same functions.
This fascinating technology can be traced all the way back to Charles Hull and his invention of stereolithography in 1986, which is the basis of printing physical objects from digital information. For several years this technology was utilized in medicine to provide doctors and surgeons with detailed models of patient anatomy, but new innovations and procedures have seen these models replaced by more accurate digital imaging.
In 1996, Dr. Gabor Forgacs and his team at the University of Missouri began working on the production of fully functioning cardiac tissue and blood vessels using cells procured from a chicken. Their success led to the founding of Organovo, a leading bio-tech firm specializing in bio-printing research and development.
In 2002, Professor Makoto Nakamura of Toyama University discovered a parallel between the size of drops of ink in standard ink-jet printers and the size of cells. Upon his discovery, Professor Nakamura began working on modifying existing ink-jet printers to accept cellular ink as a printing medium. His work led to the development of the specialized print heads used in many bio-printers today.
Bio-printing is still primarily in the research stage. However, several exciting advances have already been made. In February of 2013, Cornell University's biomedical engineers announced the fabrication of a living, bio-engineered human ear. The appendage reportedly looks and acts identical to the real thing, and gives many physicians hope for patients with deformed ears caused by either genetics or injury.
Two months later that same year, Organovo unveiled its success in manufacturing viable sections of a human liver. Although the tissue produced was exceptionally tiny and measured only half a millimeter thick and four millimeters wide, Organovo confirmed that the miniature organs were capable of performing almost all of the functions of their full-sized counterparts.
Even more impressive were the samples' lifespans. While ordinary liver assays, which rely on single or double cell layers, can only survive approximately two days with drastically fewer offered functions, Organovo's printed creations lasted as long as five days or more and maintained functionality.
One of the most exciting and immediately relevant applications of this amazing technology lies in drug testing. Every year, pharmaceutical companies pour billions of dollars into research and development of new drugs. Many of these drugs may pass their initial testing stages in the lab, but fail to reach the most critical level of testing in human trials. Because of this, fewer than one in five thousand new drugs are approved and released on the market each year.
However, with bio-printing the dangers presented by human trials could be bypassed entirely. Imagine if researchers could simply fabricate organs and tissues in the lab to test new drugs immediately and safely. Risk to human test subjects would be virtually eradicated and the efficacy of medicines could skyrocket due to the potential for customization of drug regimens for patients. Furthermore, the new screening methods offered by testing drug combinations on bio-printed materials would lead to a drastic reduction in development costs.
That's not all, either. While the aforementioned benefits are undeniably incredible, the real miracle this technology promises still lies ahead in the form of fully grown replacement organs. Researchers are currently working on devising and refining methods to print whole, functioning body parts to replace those lost by illness or injury. In as few as ten years, doctors with patients in dire need of new hearts, kidneys or livers may be able to draw tissue samples from those patients and simply print off the needed organs to perform life-saving transplants.