3D Tissue Printing: Engineering the Human Body

Over the past 20 years, 3D printing has made incredible leaps forward – from paper products to spare parts for the space station, it seems there are few limits to what the technology can create. And those limits have been stretched even further by recent innovations in live tissue printing. Known as bioprinting, the process has enabled scientists to engineer bones and tissue from samples of a patient’s own cells, and it has tremendous potential in the areas of prosthetics, organ replacement and clinical research. With the power to change how drugs are tested and how disease is treated, 3D tissue printing is expected to dramatically alter the landscape of traditional healthcare.

How exactly is tissue “printed?”

The process begins with a biopsied sample of patient cells. After being grown in the lab using traditional techniques, the raw genetic material is then formed into spheroids and quite literally loaded into an ink cartridge. Henceforth known as “bioink,” the patient’s sample is combined with a Hydrogel – a synthetic product that helps scaffold the printing of new cells. The printer lays down a layer of the gel, followed by a layer of bioink, all of which ultimately fuses together to form real live tissues.

Ground-breaking advances

Last year, the Dianzi University in China revealed a newly constructed bio-printer called Regenovo. A team of scientists actually managed to print a human kidney which remained fully functional for 4 months. A competing leader in 3D bio-printing, Organovo has announced its intention to print human livers, and has already managed to produce stable strips of liver tissue in its laboratories. Although still engaged in the testing phase, researchers at the University of Toronto recently printed thick layers of skin for burn victims. With such rapid advances, the reality of printing replacement organs – even limbs – seems a not so distant reality.

Accelerating drug discovery

The complex protocols of drug testing and pharmaceutical quality control often make bringing new treatments to market a lengthy and expensive process. 3D tissue printing can change all of that by providing labs with samples from diverse cell types with which to test new therapies. Testing would be faster and more cost effective. Organovo has already made plans to provide labs with strips of printed liver tissues, which it is marketing as an alternative to animal and human subjects. Rather than invest years following prohibitively pricey, traditional pharmaceutical quality assurance measures, drug-makers can re-direct resources to the much needed research and development of new treatments.

What is your view on the ethical dimensions of tissue printing?