Biofabrication can be defined as the production of complex living and non-living biological products from raw materials such as living cells, molecules, extracellular matrices, and biomaterials.
– Mironov et al., 2015.
First things first…What´s 3D printing?
The standard two-dimensional (2D) printing is the act of depositing ink on a 2D surface of a medium e.g. paper, cloth, plastic etc. This type of printing involves the horizontal and vertical directions generally known as X and Y axes. Three-dimensional (3D) printing adds depth i.e. the Z axis. Instead of delivering ink on paper, 3D printing involves distribution of different materials—ranging from polymers (including plastics), metal, ceramics, even chocolate—to ‘print’ an item layer by layer in a process that is known as ‘additive manufacturing’.
Got it. What´s Bioprinting?
It is simply an application of 3D printing in the realm of biomateriais i.e. cells, tissues, collagen, bone, blood vessels etc. The principles remain the same – additive deposition of biomaterials onto a supporting structure – a scaffold, to which they (biomaterials) can attach and grow into pre-determined structures.
The technology uses a material called bioink – a suspension composed of living cells with compatible base e.g. gelatin, hyaluronan, silk, alginate or nanocellulose. Sometimes the living cells come from functional cells e.g. kidney cells, skin cells etc. and at others, adult stem cells are used.
What does the Bioprinting process look like?
The entire process can be divided into three sub-processes
Here´s a simplified view of the bioprinting process courtesy of University of Rhode Island
We get it. What´s the big deal in healthcare?
Just as the printing press allowed low cost access to massive amounts of information, bioprinting could truly shift the healthcare paradigm via a high-throughput and affordable way to assemble cells to make complex tissue constructs. The case for regenerative medicine is straightforward – Printing body parts from a patient´s own cells thereby bypassing immune and logistics related issues, may well be the next step in organ transplantation. While the innovations in printed bones, corneas, cartilage, hearts, skin etc., are in nascence, they are rapidly progressing into clinical trials. We expect that the bioprinted organ transplantation would be an integral part of healthcare before 2030.
Great! How does Bioprinting help in Developing Better Medicines?
Translating a scientific breakthrough into a marketable pharmaceutical is a long risk-laden journey spanning several years and billion+ dollars. A failure in the later stages of R&D can be catastrophic, thereby calling for technologies that can reliably predict a drug´s efficacy and safety early in the R&D process (ideally before commencing clinical studies). 3D tissue models provide better results for drug screening compared to traditional 2D models. 3D models will provide better in vitro-in vivo correlation versus 2D models, AND eventually replace pre-clinical animal testing. Here is a simplified visual of the Bioprinting´s relevance in Pharmaceutical R&D:
While we are not covering it in this short introduction, bioprinting is increasingly being recognized as a game changing technology in in pharmaceutical manufacturing and supply chain.
So far so good. Why should we care?
Our understanding of the biology of human disease is increasing at a rapid pace. That every disease is heterogeneous is not debated anymore. For the pharmaceutical industry, any technology that supports the creation of a targeted/precision medicine, improves the probability of R&D success, reduces the R&D spends and speeds the time-to-market is of high interest.
As the world population increases, the increased disease prevalence will amplify the need for better molecules, cost effective R&D, improved access to medical products and services, improvements in manufacturing and supply chain.
Societies and governments alike should be watching bioprinting technology and supporting its evolution and applications. Bioprinting may not be a panacea, it has the potential to significantly affect the entire healthcare value chain, technically and economically.