3D-bioprinted ears could be 'five years away'

Katia Moskvitch, Shanghai, China

A bioprinted ear (Credit: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine)
A bioprinted ear (Credit: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine)

Patients could benefit from printed body parts in just five to 10 years, according to Reza Sadeghi, chief strategy officer at Biovia group of technology company Dassault Systemes.

Bioprinting first generated media buzz several years ago, when researchers showed videos of ears grown in a lab and 3D-printed skin.  

Since then, the bioprinting sector has been developing at light speed, thanks to computer models, lab experiments and animal trials. The major progress today is the successful development of biomaterials that can actually be used for bioprinting, Sadeghi told PE at the Manufacturing in the Age of Experience conference currently underway in Shanghai, China. He also predicted that human trials are now less than half a decade away.

3D bioprinting deposits materials called Bioinks layer by layer, producing tissue-like structures. Using this process, bioengineers have created human parts such as an artificial ear that looks and functions like a natural ear. The development could help, for example, many children born with a congenital deformity called microtia. "Assuming we will overcome the efficacy concerns, we expect the first child to have his or her hearing restored by having one of these printed ears implanted," said Sadeghi. 

Dassault Systemes is not the only company working with biomaterials. The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, for instance, prints human cells in hydrogel-based scaffolds. San Diego-based Organovo, meanwhile, prints organs directly assembling 3D tissues without using a scaffold. In 2010, the firm bioprinted working blood vessels, made from the cells of a person.

Creating organs on a microchip

Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Gothenburg used stem cells to 3D print cartilage tissue. Not only the stem cells survived, but they also multiplied and formed chondrocytes (cartilage cells) in the printed structure.

"In nature, the differentiation of stem cells into cartilage is a simple process, but it's much more complicated to accomplish in a test tube," said Stina Simonsson, a biologist who led the study.

3D bioprinting research is happening in parallel with what is known as 'organ on a chip'. Scientists build integrated circuits lined with living human cells on a microchip, to replicate an organ - and if successful, the research could revolutionise drug discovery.

In the near future, the approach might be used to test drugs on a chip outside the body before getting a patient to take them, which would transform disease modelling and personalised medicine. "Instead of me taking the drug and finding out how my liver is going to react to it, I can do that reaction outside of my body, on this replica of my liver," said Sadeghi.

In the long run, the technology could also ensure that bioprinted body parts are not rejected by the body. "Any implant that I put in my body potentially introduces some toxicity, so we can begin to study these effects on replicas," added Sadeghi. Such a replica is "a virtualised piece of a human being - but it's partly physical and partly virtual. This will dramatically change how clinical testing will be done in the future."

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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