Future of Medicine Blog Series - Part II a: Bioprinting

by Dhruv Gupta, July 30, 2013

Innovation can present itself through many means and many mediums. Often, innovation in one sector can find applicability and usefulness in others. For example, let's look at the exchange of innovation between the manufacturing sector and the life sciences. When facing costs in producing and distributing products, manufacturers have to take into account labor and capital costs. While labor costs are kept in check by wage laws on one end, companies seek out innovation in capital production in hopes of reducing costs. The newest advent in capital cost reduction comes in the way of 3D printing, a low cost method of designing and producing products that uses a polycarbonate plastic hybrid that is both flexible and sturdy. The lateral spread of this innovation across different sectors displays the power of 3D printing as an innovation.

The health care sector has become one of the newer sectors to embrace 3D printing, bioprinting, as a means to "print" organic tissue and cells in hopes to provide better diagnosis and absolve patients from disease. Most people are familiar with inkjet printers and understand how they work. They require the insertion of ink cartridges which are then sprayed onto paper in order to produce the image that appears on one's computing device. Bioprinting, now and in the future, is contingent on the same general guidelines. Instead of ink, bioprinting will require different substances such as live cells and other hybrid, organic particles.

Although bioprinting is in its infancy, its practicality and effectiveness has been demonstrated through early experimentation by contemporary life science research companies. One such company, Organovo, has pioneered the path for the advancement and adoption of bioprinting as a primary tool in creating muscles and tissues around the world. Organovo has been able to reproduce liver tissue, human blood vessels, and animal cardiac tissue. By creating human tissue, bioprinting has the ability to reshape the landscape of the life sciences and of treatment moving into the future.

Besides replacing damaged tissues, cells, and muscles inside the human body, the worth of bioprinting might be lost on the casual observer. Bioprinting affords scientists the ability to not only reproduce entire parts of the human body, it also allows them to "test drugs on functional human tissues" prior to administering said drugs to a living person. The value of that cannot be understated as this testing will help provide scientists and doctors with speedier and more accurate results than one done on a sample test animal. Furthermore, by creating carbon copies of human tissues, scientists can better understand the progression of disease in a body and develop better methods to combat the spread and effects of possible malignancies.

Along with the current applications of bioprinting now, the future of such an innovation is promising as well. Pharmacology enables us to understand the science of drug action on different biological systems. Utilizing this knowledge in order to bioprint drugs that are tailored for specific individuals would allow scientists to increase the effectiveness of drugs as a whole. Different versions of the same drug often render different levels of efficacy between individuals. Understanding which drugs work best and producing these drugs (maybe even in the comfort of one's own home) would be a revolutionary step forward in personalized, outpatient care.

However, as of now, Organovo is engaged in a multitude of projects including finding ways to combat cancer by analyzing how cancer drugs work in a targeted environment and how they can better spread in cancer networks. Organovo, along with other companies, are on the cusp of invigorating a new revolution in health care and bioprinting is one of the foremost technological innovations that will spur that revolution.

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