Imagine having the ability to engineer organs and tissue on demand, reducing the years long wait time many patients must go through to receive a transplant.

Or, a world where machines could instantly create a variety of medical materials to be used to streamline safety and efficacy testing, saving companies billions of dollars in research and development costs and reducing the need for experiments on animals and humans.

It might sound like something from a science fiction movie, but it’s a future we may be moving towards due to innovations in the field of 3D bioprinting, according to a new report from market research firm IDTechEx.

3D bioprinting executes a similar process to traditional 3D printing—where 3D physical objects are created from a digital model on a layer-by-layer basis—except that live cell suspensions are utilized. This requires highly sterile printing conditions to maintain cell viability and higher printing resolution to place cells precisely to ensure the correct design and cell-to-cell distance. Multiple cell types have to be printed simultaneously to replicate complex tissues.

This scientific technique has been under investigation in academia for the past 15 years, with researchers exploring devices that could create a layer-by-layer deposition to form a final three-dimensional construct.

Commercialization of this technology first occurred almost 10 years ago, signaling the rise of a number of high profile partnerships. Many of these partnerships have occurred with Organovo, a startup using a proprietary three-dimensional technology.  Organovo is working with a number of biopharmaceutical firms, including Roche, on ventures like assessing drug-induced toxicity on simulated liver tissue, and with L’Oreal to test potential product side -effects on artificial skin.

The basic production process of 3D printing breaks down into four steps: preparation, printing, maturation, and application. Users need to perform 3D imaging to construct the sample design, import the model into the bioprinter, enable cell adhesion to scaffold, and then wrap it up through testing and implementation.

Some of the breakthroughs within this field include the first biological material printed in 1987, the first extrusion printing of cells in 2002, and the first laser-based printing of cells in 2004. A number of several successful animal experiments followed this in 2016, when researchers replicated liver tissue in mice and blood vessels in rhesus monkeys.

The author of the IDTechEx report writes that this technology offers a variety of opportunities for people working in consumer products and drug discovery and development, but there are still a few hurdles that need to be overcome before the field can really mature into a multi-billion dollar business.

Here are a few highlights and challenges in the field outlined in the IDTechEx report.

Choosing the right material

The four primary materials associated with standard bioprinting production are inkjet, extrusion, laser-induced forward transfer (LIFT), and microvalve.

Inkjet offers high-dispensing speeds and high-printing resolution and could yield applications like high throughput screenings that require high droplet dispensing speeds. It’s weakness involves a long-build time, nozzle clogging, and limited printed viscosities that may cause harm to cells.

Extrusion enables low cost, short-build time, and has an easy set up process. These features may help with printing large, medically relevant constructs in a short period of time, although there is increasing competition in the extrusion space, according to the IDTechEx report.

LIFT has similar strengths as its inkjet counterpart with high dispensing speeds and high printing resolutions with the ability to produce high viscosity material. However, it has the most expensive and time-consuming set-up process.

Microvalve is the newest addition to this field with no significant weaknesses. It’s cheap and compatible with printing high viscosity material, but there is no commercial presence at this time.

Extrusion and inkjet are the more developed technologies, but LIFT may be viewed as the best in class, while microvalve bioprinters could grow in popularity.

Market applications

The R&D and medical spaces are where 3D bioprinting and 3D bioprinted tissues are the most dominant.

Manufacturing constructs resembling human tissues in form and function has enabled a better understand of biological processes. One area where this technology has made an impact is by eliminating animal testing in cosmetics and consumer goods.

However, the medical field is where synthetic tissue could have a strong impact, especially in the field of personalized and regenerative medicine.

Scientists could use this novel material to assess a patient’s specific response to a certain drug, which could also provide flexibility in determining the optimal dosage. Plus, this might eliminate the need for a biopsy.

The IDTechEx report notes regenerative medicine is an area where 3D bioprinting could really take off, with skin and cartilage-based structures having the most potential.

Both of these biological components cannot easily perform self-repair due to the lack of blood supply, so synthetic options are the best options available for many patients. These vary from metallic implants for load-bearing bones and joints.

However, these inventions can be hindered by a wearing down of implant surfaces as well as degradation of mechanical performance over time.

Surgeons could use this next-gen material to lower the amount of time needed for patients to spend on the operating table, while giving the surgeon greater control over restoring the tissue.

Researchers could also potentially develop living replacement teeth that are in the exact shape as the ones that came before it, harness relevant cell types to model the complex 3D structure of skin to boost healing and patient outcomes, and even get precise and design small structures in the body’s vascular system, like a heart valve.

Challenges ahead

Researchers and entrepreneurs still have a few obstacles in their way before this field can really flourish.

On the technical side, there is an emphasis needed for computer driven tools to offer a certain level of precision that allows for accuracy and reproducible placement of individual cells.

Also, printing high viscosity solutions has implications on cell density and mechanical structure so engineers will need to find structural support that is currently not available for 3D bioprinting technologies. Plus, there needs to be a solution for printing and maturing medically relevant structures in a reasonable time frame.

The primary issue on the biological side is that building an entire organ is still about a decade away even though smaller tissue constructs could be viable in restoring adequate organ function. Other obstacles that could be encountered include finding a cheap, cost-efficient method for ensuring the manufactured cells proliferate and mature into 3D cultured tissue.

Ultimately, refining these techniques and having regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and European Medicines Agency establish a regulatory framework to get these products approved could help the market value of 3D bioprinted tissue be worth about $1.4 billion by 2027.

Over the next month, R&D Magazine will highlight other advancements in the bio-electronic sector, giving a glimpse into future developments and devices changing human health.