Organ Printing Holds Promise for Better Healthcare, Cheaper Drugs

3D bioprinting

This week, global experts will gather at the University of British Columbia to discuss the latest trends in 3D bioprinting—a technology used to create living tissues and organs.

In this Q&A, UBC chemical and biological engineering professor Vikramaditya Yadav, who is also with the Regenerative Medicine Cluster Initiative in B.C., explains how bioprinting could potentially transform healthcare and drug development, and highlights Canadian innovations in this field.

Why is 3D bioprinting significant?

Bioprinted tissues or organs could allow scientists to predict beforehand how a drug will interact within the body. For every life-saving therapeutic drug that makes its way into our medicine cabinets, Health Canada blocks the entry of nine drugs because they are proven unsafe or ineffective. Eliminating poor-quality drug candidates to reduce development costs—and therefore the cost to consumers—has never been more urgent.

3D bioprinting
Vikramaditya Yadav

In Canada alone, nearly 4,500 individuals are waiting to be matched with organ donors. If and when bioprinters evolve to the point where they can manufacture implantable organs, the concept of an organ transplant waiting list would cease to exist. And bioprinted tissues and organs from a patient’s own healthy cells could potentially reduce the risk of transplant rejection and related challenges.

How is this technology currently being used?

Skin, cartilage and bone, and blood vessels are some of the tissue types that have been successfully constructed using bioprinting. Two of the most active players are the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, which reports that its bioprinters can make enough replacement skin to cover a burn with 10 times less healthy tissue than is usually needed, and California-based Organovo, which makes its kidney and liver tissue commercially available to pharmaceutical companies for drug testing.

Beyond medicine, bioprinting has already been commercialized to print meat and artificial leather. It’s been estimated that the global bioprinting market will hit $2 billion by 2021.

How is Canada involved in this field?

Canada is home to some of the most innovative research clusters and start-up companies in the field. The UBC spin-offAspect Biosystems has pioneered a bioprinting paradigm that rapidly prints on-demand tissues. It has successfully generated tissues found in human lungs.

Many initiatives at Canadian universities are laying strong foundations for the translation of bioprinting and tissue engineering into mainstream medical technologies. These include the Regenerative Medicine Cluster Initiative in B.C., which is headed by UBC, and the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering.

What ethical issues does bioprinting create?

There are concerns about the quality of the printed tissues. It’s important to note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada are dedicating entire divisions to regulation of biomanufactured products and biomedical devices, and the FDA also has a special division that focuses on regulation of additive manufacturing – another name for 3D printing.

These regulatory bodies have an impressive track record that should assuage concerns about the marketing of substandard tissue. But cost and pricing are arguably much more complex issues.

Some ethicists have also raised questions about whether society is not too far away from creating Replicants, à la Blade Runner. The idea is fascinating, scary and ethically grey. In theory, if one could replace the extracellular matrix of bones and muscles with a stronger substitute and use cells that are viable for longer, it is not too far-fetched to create bones or muscles that are stronger and more durable than their natural counterparts.

Will doctors be printing replacement body parts in 20 years’ time?

This is still some way off. Optimistically, patients could see the technology in certain clinical environments within the next decade. However, some technical challenges must be addressed in order for this to occur, beginning with faithful replication of the correct 3D architecture and vascularity of tissues and organs. The bioprinters themselves need to be improved in order to increase cell viability after printing.

These developments are happening as we speak. Regulation, though, will be the biggest challenge for the field in the coming years.