When the Economist, arguably one of the last mainstream media outlet to have never traded off quality for clicks, writes an article about 3D printing, things happen. It may not be The Economist itself that makes them happen but rather just the fact that the top British financial magazine knows exactly when is the right time to discuss a certain topic. Now it’s that time for bioprinting.
It happened in 2012, when it kicked off the hype on “3D printing for everyone” hype and it happened shortly thereafter when it brought the concept of a desktop factory to more people than ever. Now a new article seems to officially kick off the 3D bioprinting hype for actual body parts.
Body parts are not internal organs. Simple cartilagineous structures like noses and ears can already be 3D printed to an acceptable quality and could likely be implanted in humans. Skin is on the way, so are bones made of bone-replacement materials like polymers and ceramics. This means that the only element limiting their use is legislative regulation and approval by national regulatory associations such as the FDA or the EU Commission. This will take five to ten years however it is less difficult to estimate than the technological development itself
Bioprinters are becoming a more and more common tool in most university labs and new research applications are discovered everyday. What we need to understand and keep in mind is that actual complex organ 3D printing is much much farther away. So far away, in fact, that we cannot even know if it is at all possible. Curiously enough the ichallengesare similar to those for all 3D printing: multi-material capabilities with end use materials. A complex organ is made up of so many different types of cells that it is quite difficult to imagine building one with inkjet technology (which is today the only reliable multi-material 3D printing technology we have.
The Economist’s online article, which originally appeared on the print edition Science & Technology section, correctly reports that “… today, using multiple print heads to squirt out different cell types, along with polymers that help keep the structure in shape, it is possible to deposit layer upon layer of cells that will bind together and grow into living, functional tissue. Researchers in various places are tinkering with kidney and liver tissue, skin, bones and cartilage, as well as the networks of blood vessels needed to keep body parts alive. They have implanted printed ears, bones and muscles into animals, and watched these integrate properly with their hosts. Last year a group at Northwestern University, in Chicago, even printed working prosthetic ovaries for mice. The recipients were able to conceive and give birth with the aid of these artificial organs.”
One thing to keep in mind is that implanting something into a mice is several orders of magnitude different than implanting in humans. The article goes on to state that complex human organs such as kidneys could take as little as six years and livers might be ready even sooner. This, incidentally, was the general consensus from “industry experts” about thrre to five years ago so, before you go out to get your hands on all the 3D Bioprinting company’s you can find, remember the Gartner hype cycle curve.
3D Bioprinting is incredible and it is opening amazing possibilities for research and even some commercial applications. Established companies like Organovo, EnvisionTEC, RegenHU and fascinating startups like 3DBio, CELLINK and Rokit are making huge steps forward. The false illusion of on-demand 3D printed organs could overshadow all their great, real, accomplishments. So keep an eye out for the hype and go easy on your liver for now.