The science of printing organ tissue has made strides; one scientist believes the key is to bioprint tissue inside the human body.
Bio-printing usually involves inserting cells in an abiotic substrate outside a living body to be cultured, and then implanted when needed.
But one firm believes it would be more effective to print the cells inside a person, taking advantage of the body's natural ability to incubate and promote cell reproduction. This method is called in-vivo.
William Warren, vice president of vaccine manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur's VaxDesign Campus, explained to attendees of the RAPID 3D Printing Conference in Long Beach, California, this week that in-vivo bioprinting is also the least invasive procedure.
Sanofi Pasteur, a division of pharmaceutical company Sanofi, is the largest company dedicated entirely to vaccine development. Recently, it developed a bioprinting method that can extrude tissues of varying thicknesses to build constructs that living cells can grow around to form tissues.
The technology has allowed Sanofi Pasteur to print everything from collagen, a protein that connects tissues, to fibrinogen, the body's clotting agent.
Warren believes that before reproducing organs in vivo, 3D bioprinting will succeed in conquering "low-hanging fruit" first, such as reproducing auditory tissue for hearing, skin, tissue for vision and endoskeletons such as vertebrae. In fact, Warren believes, science will be able to bioprint organs outside of the body within five to seven years.
"I think we'll do it in vitro first, and that's being done very successfully now," Warren said. "But, I think long-term it will be in vivo."
In the meantime, bioprinting is mainly being used for drug testing, a form of personalized medicine where a patient's tissue can be cultivated and then used to test the effectiveness or toxicity of drugs.
Sanofi Pasteur's bioprinting method, which looks like a robotically controlled pen dispensing ink, has allowed it to lay down various tissues onto organs gently enough to not damage existing tissue. Company researchers have even been able to print on water without breaking the surface.
"We haven't figured out how to walk on water, but we have figured out how to print on water," Warren quipped.
To date, Sanofi Pasteur has been able to print various tissues on the organs of dead animals, to a height of about one millimeter.
However, there are significant hurdles to creating functioning organ tissue, the greatest of which is being able to produce a vascular infrastructure significant enough to feed the tissue with nutrients and oxygen. Vasculature is extremely complicated, Warren noted.
Printing tissue with enough vascular and scaffold support to replace organs using an in-vivo method is still 15 or more years away, Warren said. In the maintime, Sanofi Pasteur has, he said, successfully created a mock-up of one vascular system.
The company reproduced a lymph node using artificial substrates. Actual lymph nodes are an important part of the body's immune system, filtering out foreign particles and even cancer cells.
Being able to reproduce a lymph node artificially means the company has conquered the ability to map out the system; now it needs to apply living cells to that, Warren said.
Bioprinting systems of the future should be focused on combining many processes in a similar way to how some computer systems combine many technologies into one.
"I think with bioprinting in 20-plus years, we'll see the same thing where we have all these tools and all these instruments and minimally invasive surgery with a simple bioprinting tool," Warren said. "It's really about taking multiple things and integrating them all into one."