Bio-deep-tech: Organ printing as an industry
Printing tissues and organs is next up on my journey through deep tech in biotech. Are we actually talking about printing organs? Yes we are. But don’t panic – it is unlikely that your HP jet printer is going to produce a kidney anytime soon.
So what are we talking about?
Bioprinting is an additive manufacturing technique where materials that interact with biological systems are combined to create structures. In its simplest form, this is the subject of creating a living structure through printing.
What problem is bioprinting looking to solve?
The organ transplant industry is seriously over overworked. To put this problem into perspective, in the USA, less than one third of patients on the organ waiting list receive the organ they need. In China, the rate is less than 1%. If this statistic doesn’t work for you, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration, in the USA 20 people die a day whilst waiting for an organ transplant. Clearly if we were able to print, and successfully “install”, organs, we would be solving a critical problem.
A less “fancy” but potentially easier problem to solve is the cost of clinical trials. Clinical trials can cost hundreds of millions of pounds, starting with testing on animals and subsequently human trials. Putting aside ethical issues associated with animal testing, I think we can all agree that if clinical trials were more affordable, it is likely that we would have a higher chance of curing more diseases.
How does bioprinting work?
Think of it like 3D printing. A material is extruded onto a platform in layers to build up a structure. The difference is that the ink, bioink to be accurate, is made of a variety of biological materials and cells. The makeup of the bioink depends on the application. For example, if you want to print liver tissue, you will need to select the bioink, or bioinks, containing the building blocks for liver cells. Look at this link for more information on how the process works.
Current applications of bioprinting being researched include everything from skin and muscle tissues to liver and hearts. Although we are many years away from printing a complete human organ, according to a study in 2019, researchers at Tel Aviv University were able to print a heart the size of a rabbit’s using human tissue. It should be noted though that the heart was not functional.
Potential barriers to overcome
In certain bioprinting applications stem cells are used to support the development of the tissue that is being printed. The ethical debate on stem cell usage has been present for some time now and is likely to continue, therefore overcoming this barrier is likely to be essential prior to the industry taking off.
We also need to see how regulators such as the European Medical Agency (“EMA”) and the U.S Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) react to the new technology. At present neither have been quick to develop specific guidelines and boundaries therefore any developments here must be monitored closely.
At New Grounds VC, we are excited to see how bioprinting will develop over the next 5-10 years. We appreciate that creating organs for transplants might be at least a decade away, however any application that can make clinical trials more affordable is going to be instrumental to the growth of the biotechnology industry.