“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” – Albert Einstein
In today’s technologically advanced world we have already achieved so many milestones but some are left to gain public acceptance. You might have heard about 3D Bioprinting several times but is this technology really booming in the healthcare sector? Let us find how much 3D Bioprinting has progressed over time.
Scientists and healthcare experts believe that 3D Bioprinting can help develop real human organs with the help of a Bioprinting machine. Did you ever imagine that you’ll be able to print your organs one day? Absolutely not!! But the advent of technology made it possible and extensive research is going on to turn our optimistic hopes into a reality. Although some researchers have already designed human tissues and organs like miniature kidneys and heart tissues, we are yet to know more about this technology to see where it stands today and where it will lead us in the future.
3D Bioprinting is a discipline that brings together two fields i.e., medical and engineering to perform wonders in the field of healthcare. It is a transformative clinical response to the people in need of biological tissue replacement. Bioprinting technology is an amalgamation of various medical sciences including regenerative medicine, advent in the printing world, and material sciences.
3D bioprinting’s applications are not just limited to printing tissues and organs, rather it will help eliminate the need to wait for months and years to get an organ transplant and it will emerge as a solution to drugs and cosmetics testing on animals. Worldwide problems of organ shortages and the responsibility of finding a perfect match donor can be fulfilled with this technology.
- Bioprinting is an advanced version of traditional 3D printing.
- 3D Bioprinting can be used to develop living human tissues, bones, blood vessels as well as whole organs for use in medical procedures.
- 3D printing is facing difficulties in its growth due to the complex structure of human internal organs.
- It is a transformative technology to design compatible tissues and organs for patients that are alike to their own organs.
- This technology will help patients get personalized treatments that are patient-specific, accurate, and targeted.
- Despite its vast potential applications in the medical sector, 3D Bioprinting has still not been able to get recognition as a mainstream treatment due to the ethical and regulatory concerns related to this technology. Hence, there is a need to provide appropriate evidence regarding the safety of this technology.
Designing human organs, skin, and tissues might sound like a future technology, but it is very much happening in the present, though being in its nascent stages. Hospitals and patients are considering bioprinting as an emerging treatment for their medical needs, making it a potential application of personalized medicine.
The advent of major developments in 3D bioprinting has given birth to an extensive transformation of the printing sector that is being utilized in healthcare research for developing prosthetics, medical devices, and models. Similarly, organ transplants and surgery methods have also witnessed exponential growth in terms of technology. Doctors have well-laid medical plans and solutions for complex surgery but most of the time they are hindered by a shortage of donors’ unavailability for tissue or organ reconstruction and transplantation. Mismatched transplants can result in complications due to complex immune responses and are eventually rejected by the patient’s immune system. 3D Bioprinting software draws out the data from a patient’s internal imaging such as MRI, computed tomography, or other scans to extract information about their organ construction, to help with surgery planning and organ implant. 3D printing is the upcoming future of surgery, working towards making things easier for acceptors without hurting donors. Before going into the technicalities of 3D Bioprinting, let us understand the basics of this technology.
How does a 3D printer work?
2D printers or Traditional printers (that we all have at our homes) have the ability to print in two dimensions only. But 3D printers can print in three dimensions giving depth to the object. 3D printers can move in all directions unlike normal printers, and design multiple layers to bring depth to an object. Now the question arises what material do we use to print 3D objects? We can incorporate a variety of materials to work as ink for 3D printers including polymers, metals, or any other material depending on our need.
To begin with 3D printing, firstly we need a blueprint or a digital file that will act as a model for our object to be printed. Such a digital file can be designed using modeling software. This digital model is then used to give commands to the printer to print the same object. Chosen material of our need is heated to make it flowy and then is filled in place of ink. Now the printer nozzle moves up and down to lay subsequent layers of that material and it is allowed to cool down and solidify. This way you can get a desired shaped object. Some of the items commonly printed using 3D printers include toys, clothing, jewelry, and other innovative items.
What is Bioprinting?
Bioprinters have almost the same working as normal 3D printers, the only difference lies in the material used for printing. Bioprinting uses biomaterials such as live tissues and cells instead of synthetic materials. These biomaterials are incorporated in the construction of human internal structures such as skin, tissues, blood vessels, or whole organs.
Cells to be used as biomaterials are taken from the patient’s body and the cell source depends on the type of material we want to print. Cells are cultivated under a controlled environment of labs until they are ready to be used as bioinks. All types of our body cells are not regenerative, so stem cells are used in such special cases due to their capability to convert into any type of body cells. Detailed scans of the patient’s internal structure are taken and then tissues are printed through bioinks with the help of 3D Bioprinters. Thin films of cells are laid in multiple layers to mimic the original internal structure of human organs. Of Course, the flowy material of bioinks can not make a rigid structure on its own, so scaffolds are used to provide support to biological structures. A scaffold is made up of collagen or other materials to which cells can attach and grow over time. Scaffolds provide biomaterials support and also impart them a shape. Although there are some cells that do not require any attachment to grow, they can attain a shape on their own without scaffolding. This automatic cell growth behavior comes from their innate nature to grow in the surrounding environment, for example, an embryo can grow in different types of cells in the womb. Later, researchers can mold them into final shapes. Some of the latest methods that are being used for 3D Bioprinting include laser, extrusion, tissue fragment, inkjet, and microvalves printing. These methods have their own advantages and disadvantages with lots of challenges to overcome. Extensive research is going on to build the most acceptable 3D printer model for the benefit of mankind.
Applications of Bioprinting
Applications of Bioprinting are limitless, reading about them will make you feel like you are in a sci-fi movie. We have mentioned some of the best applications of 3D Bioprinting below in this article-
Blood vessels development
Designing viable blood vessels is an essential step to take if we wish for the success of 3D Bioprinting, as almost every part of our body is connected through nerves and blood vessels. Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are developing ways to create viable blood vessels with the ability to develop on their own. They have successfully created a network of blood vessels and are working towards developing organized networks of vessels. Another research conducted at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital has discovered a method of developing blood vessels using an agarose fiber template covered with hydrogel. They successfully designed nerve networks that had various architectural features.
Constructing Internal organs
The shortage of human organ donors is a major problem suffered by patients worldwide. Many people die waiting for their turn of organ transplantation. But researchers hope that they will be able to solve this problem by developing organs through 3D Bioprinting. Such organs will also eliminate the fear of rejection by the patient’s body as the cells employed in organ development are taken from the patient’s body itself. Printing a complete complex internal organ such as the heart, kidney, and liver is still far from reality but extensive research is being done to improve current technology. However, organs with simple constructs are easier to develop and the bladder has already been constructed at the Wake Forest University in the United States. They took cells from the patient’s original bladder and cultivated them with nutrients. An artificial bladder mold was constructed and cells were incubated with it. After the incubation, the 3D construct becomes ready to be transplanted. This construct will eventually degrade and will be replaced by the body’s natural cell. Their research team has also constructed viable urethras. Bioengineers have done wonders by developing a miniature liver. This liver was completely functional but could not survive more than 5 days. Although, it is a good start and there is more to achieve in the field of Bioprinting whole organs. Researchers in Australia have utilized human stem cells to print a kidney sample that contains all types of cells required for a kidney construct. This could be a huge step towards making a completely functional kidney in the future. Scientists also believe that developing a heart would be easier than other complex organs and we can expect the arrival of printed hearts soon.
Bone deformities are increasing at a fast pace and hence the number of people requiring bone grafts is also increasing. Commonly adopted bone grafting methods use synthetic material combined with the patient’s own bone for bone replacement. These synthetic materials often lack in providing mechanical functioning and restrict new cell growth. But with the advent of 3D bioprinting, researchers at Swansea University have developed a process to create artificial bones using a biocompatible material, similar in shape and size to the patient’s original bones. This biomaterial is durable as well as regenerative. After several months of 3D printed bone transplant, they degrade and are eventually replaced by the patient’s natural bones. Printing small bones like trabecula takes around two hours and with this speed, doctors in the future will be able to print bones during operations as well.
University of Nottingham’s research team is also working on bone replacement with 3D Bioprinting. They start by building the same bone needed for replacement and use it as a scaffold. This scaffold is then covered with adult stem cells and a Bioink. A few months after the transplant, the scaffold is degenerated and replaced by natural bone. Furthermore, research is going on to improve bone quality and reduce the cost of operation.
During skin grafting, a person’s skin is taken from other parts of the body and applied to the affected area but in case of severe burns, it becomes difficult sometimes. Scientists at the Wake Forest School of Medicine have built a 3D printer that can print skin cells directly on the wounded area. Its scanner first measures the wound’s shape and depth and then applies the correct cell type at the required place. Moreover, it only requires one-tenth of the skin area to print the skin of the entire wound site. Another American company has developed multilayered skin with different types of cells i.e., dermis and epidermis. This technology is in its nascent stages but is expected to gain huge popularity in the coming years.
A novel way of drug testing
Currently, drug testing is done on animals which often raises several ethical issues and also an animal’s reaction to a drug differs from that of a human. 3D Bioprinting technology can help eliminate such complexities, as experiments and drug testing can directly be conducted on viable human organs. Bioprinted organs can help researchers study human organs with better precision, allowing them to study several diseases and design personalized treatments for them. It has huge potential for supporting novel research and assisting scientists to observe an organ in real-time.
One such interesting example of this technology is the ‘benchtop brain’ developed by a team at the ARC Center of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES). The six-layered neural cells structure mimics brain tissue. This structure will help doctors solve various queries related to brain functioning and treat complex brain-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Schizophrenia. Scientists will be able to design personalized treatments in a much lesser time and get more accurate results with the assistance of 3D-printed organs and tissues.
What’s the delay?
An organ isn’t just about a bunch of cells, it’s rather a complex mix of different types of cells, tissues, interconnected nerves, all giving shape to a specific structure. Everything has to be in the right place to make an organ function properly. In order to make 3D Bioprinting a success, intensive research is required in all the fields including medicine, biotechnology, physics, and engineering, to design powerful software and hardware. Moreover, printing organs raises some ethical issues as this technology is prone to misuse. Excellent regulatory rules and regulations need to be put in place for accepting this technology as a mainstream treatment method.
3D bioprinting is accelerating at an ever-increasing rate due to its interdisciplinary nature. Though it seems to be exciting, we need to be careful not to exceed our expectations with this technology. Researchers working in this field are making advancements every day, both in developing new technologies and in their understanding of how to improve the existing technology. Our body is extremely complex, and trying to mimic what it does can be equally challenging. Though we are not there yet, scientists are working day and night towards it, so we are not too far from achieving the impossible.