US biotech startup BioBots is developing printers able to create living tissue. Its products have been on the market for just a few weeks.

3D printers can now manufacture living tissue

Additive Layer Manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, is without doubt one of the most spectacular and promising inventions of recent years. The range of items that can be printed out using this technique include not just little statuettes, but car bodies, houses, prostheses, rocket parts and even food. The applications of 3D printing seem to be limited only by human imagination. Now you can even fabricate a human tissue structure. During the TechCrunch Disrupt event in New York in May, Philadelphia-based startup BioBots unveiled a desktop bioprinter designed to create living human tissue structures, astounding the audience by printing a replica of Van Gogh’s famous amputated ear. The company has now been shipping its biomaterial printer for a few months, at a price of around $10,000. The basic idea of biofabrication is nothing new: scientists have been working in this field for over a decade. However, this young firm is offering an approach to living tissue assembly, based on 3D printing technology, which is simpler, less cumbersome and much cheaper than those currently available.

A groundbreaking process

A key innovation of the BioBots system is that it uses visible blue light combined with a compound photoinitiator contained in its ‘ink’ to cure biomaterial structures. Users of the machine will have to provide the living cells they want to print out in a given structure, such as bone or cartilage, and then add to the ‘ink’ the binding factors to ensure the cells stick together. During his presentation at TechCrunch Disrupt New York, BioBots CEO Danny Cabrera explained how the process developed by the firm differentiates its approach from rivals in the same field. Other companies use UV or pressure to cure the structures, but both these techniques are likely to harm the living cells, argues Cabrera. The competitors in this field include Canada-based Aspect Biosystems, Swedish firm Cellink, and Japanese Cyfuse Biomedical. Since the TechCrunch Disrupt event, BioBots has been working with 50 different research labs at universities around the world to perfect its 3D printer, revealed Cabrera in a recent interview with business magazine Quartz.

Designing individual treatment for each patient

The company’s prime objective is to help medical research. Living tissue can be used to try out new drugs in the laboratory, thus avoiding the need for animal testing. Moreover, the BioBots system could pave the way for personalised medication, testing on an individual basis in order to provide each patient with customised treatment perfectly suited to his/her needs. ‟You can have patients coming into the clinic and we can take cells directly from the patient and build 3D tissues, miniature tissues, specifically for that patient and test different treatments, different drug routines and personalised therapies for patient-specific disease,” Danny Cabrera told the TechCrunch Disrupt New York audience, stressing: “We’ve got this old school notion that we lump diseases together into categories and we give them names but diseases are all different from individual to individual, and our drug development process is sort of outdated. We develop one drug for millions of people in these expensive clinical trials, where today we can really use this technology to build one drug for one individual person.” For the moment the BioBots 3D printer is not able to print really complex structures, such as organs, but this might become feasible in the future, which would be a wonderful advance for people waiting for a replacement liver or kidney.  However, before any of this can happen, the US Food and Drug Administration will have to give an opinion on the process.

By Guillaume Renouard