3D printing first emerged as a technology to manufacture such things as aircraft parts to prosthetic limbs in the 1980s. However, advances in these tools, and the subsequent emergence of advanced cell biology technologies, have given way to the possibility of 3D printing with human cells for research, drug development and testing, and possibly even regenerative medicine applications. Ultimately, it is not a far stretch of the science of the imagination to think that replacement organs, such as a kidneys or pancreases could become reality.1
GE gathered some of its leading scientists in the life sciences field for a free-ranging in-depth discussion of 3D BioPrinting, how the technology is developing, who is working on it, and the potential this area of research offers to biotechnology and healthcare.
“3D printing is a real-world application,” says Geraint Seymour, a Product Development Design Engineer based at GE Healthcare’s R&D facility in Cardiff, Wales. “It’s become a day-to-day tool to create new products. We’re able to design or make changes to new or existing components in a 3D printer.
“A 3D printer is a platform that prints multiple thin layers of plastic at a time. These layers form an object. We use plastic, but high-end metals can be used in various applications.”
Not surprisingly, printing with living cells to create tissues for research or regenerative medicine purposes is much more complex than printing objects in plastic or metal. Despite all the imagined possibilities, genuine organ printing as it would be understood by the lay person has a very long way to go if it is ever to become a reality in healthcare.
“GE already has a significant strategic interest in cell therapy and regenerative medicine, and is developing tools and processes for the routine provision of cells to patients in a safe and efficacious way,” says Ger Brophy, Chief Technology Officer, Life Sciences, GE Healthcare.
“As the technology for 3D BioPrinting develops, the tools, processes and regulations for working with cells will emerge, and here, in the long term, I anticipate that GE will be a significant contributor to progress in the field.”
It’s not just cell biology and 3D printing technology that would need to come together to make BioPrinting of organs a reality. Disciplines such as medical imaging would also likely have a role to play.
“In order to create something that functions like a real organ, people will need to develop extra complexities in these systems at the biochemical and molecular level in order to work out what is going on in those systems,” explains GE radiochemist, Alex Jackson.
“This is where molecular imaging could play an important role. Once these systems reach a certain size we’ll need to be able to probe how healthy the cells are in the central part of the structure.”
For now, 3D BioPrinting seems to be making most progress with potential applications in the pharmaceutical industry. Since late 2000, modified printers have been able to print cells with reasonable viability. Pharmaceutical companies are able to use this function to create tiny models of human organs printed onto a “chip”. These are then used to help researchers develop a better understanding of how a drug interacts with the heart muscle, liver tissue, or that of any other organ in the body.2
“So for example, you could have cardiac cells with skeletal muscle cells. You could print out the cells that make up a specific organ,” said Vandana Keskar, a Cell Biologist at GE’sGlobal Research Center.
“With 3D BioPrinting it not just the printing and arranging of cells, there needs to be a factor that binds or holds the cells together, a bio-ink or glue. You can then print them into a certain shape. There has been a lot of work that has gone into developing these inks.”
Keskar is keen to point out that with these mini organs, it isn’t the whole organ but a part of the organ that allows researchers to see how it responds in a similar manner to a drug when compared to the whole organ.
Developing these miniature organs for research applications may be an important, yet very early, step towards creating fully functional organs that, for example, could secrete insulin to help the pancreas regulate glucose levels in diabetics. These mini organs could be used as patches that may not cure patients, but could significantly improve their quality of life. 3
“We’re quite a bit away from something truly mindblowing,” says Seymour. “In the short term I think there are steps that we can take in order that we can begin showcasing the technology and gain confidence in the work that is being done.”
Keskar concludes: “These are exciting times because we are exploring this new technology and the ideas that are being proposed. Sometimes all it takes is one breakthrough paper that truly opens the door.”