Dentures, hip joints, replacement knees and potentially printable skin and organs aims to drive growth in the burgeoning market for 3D printers over the next decade, according to new research. Bio-printing, or the process of creating human tissues through 3D printers, is a highly contested area of technological innovation.
Bio-printing works by firstly identifying the main architectural and compositional elements of the tissue, basically its genetic make-up. This is then used to create a template that the bio-printer can use to generate the same tissue. To do so, the bio-printer uses “bio-ink”, made up of cells from any source, which it deposits in precise layers. Looking at the end result, compared to traditional methods, functional living human tissue can provide better predictive value of what occurs in the human body when a drug is given or during medical issue progression.
At present, 3D printers are most widely used in the automotive industry where they help produce prototypes for new cars or car parts. The next biggest market is aero-space, where manufacturers are using the technology to make lighter versions of complex parts for aeroplanes. Already, 3D printers have been used by the medical industry to create a jaw; a pelvis and several customised hip replacements from metal.
The dental and medical market for 3D printers is expected to expand by 365% to £523m by 2025, according to IDTechEx analysts; even before bio-printing technology is taken into account. If bio-printing becomes suitable for commercial use, which scientists aim to allow the printing of pieces of skin, liver or kidney using live cells; analysts estimate the medical market could reach a value of $6bn or more within 10 years. While printing of complete organs for transplants may be decades away, the use of pieces of tissue for laboratory toxicology tests for cosmetic procedures or drugs could be ready within five years; supporting the medical market for 3D printers overtake all other sectors.
Organovo design and create functional human tissues, they recently bio-printed their first 3D liver tissue for testing purposes and have created 24 strips of liver tissues within a single plate. In 2010 the company also printed the first human blood vessel, without the use of scaffolds. They estimate that it would take 10 days to print an average sized liver and lobe. However, they also predict that the speed and efficiency, with which they may create such tissue structures, aims to greatly advance in the future.
In the meantime, Organovo plans to market and launch its 3D liver tissue to pharmaceutical companies and research labs by the end of December; and is currently developing bio-printed breast cancer tissues, alongside lung and muscle tissues. With the technology advancing at such a fast rate, the concept of entire organs and bodies being produced by 3D printers is becoming a concrete reality.
In addition to body parts, researchers at Louisiana Tech University have developed a way to use regular desktop 3D printers to fabricate custom medical implants that may be used for targeted drug delivery. The team of doctoral students and research staff at the university collaborated to make filament extruders, which may create biocompatible 3D printer filaments with specialized properties for drug delivery. Many experts agree that the team’s research paves the way for easy to make and affordable custom-made drugs.
The medical-quality filaments have specialised properties, which enable them to be infused with antibacterial and chemotherapeutic drug compounds. Doctors can infuse the filament with the necessary dosage required by the specific drug for a patient, and go on to use a standard consumer-level 3D printer to print the drug-infused biomaterial into capsules.
With the new bio-ink information and bio-print technology discovered recently, researchers may now better conduct and tailor bio-printing studies; which may lead to quicker development of functional 3D printed ‘self-made’ organs.
Which areas of the medical industry should look towards increasing their investment in 3D bio-printing technology?