Entrepreneur Ken Church strives to print the impossible
“My daughter was given a 10% chance of survival,” said Ken Church, CEO of nScrypt. “She was born with a diaphragmatic hernia, an abnormal opening in the diaphragm that allows the organs to encroach on the chest cavity. The doctors put her on a heart-lung machine, and she didn't breathe on her own for the first week of her life. I looked at all the technology that was keeping her alive and was thankful for everything they did, but at one point I said to myself, ‘My daughter has only one lung: why can’t we make her another one?’”
There are two happy endings to this story. The first is that Church’s daughter survived, and today is a happy, healthy 24-year-old who “runs at full capacity,” despite her missing lung. The second is that his vision of one day being able to manufacture complex body organs might soon come to fruition.
Church is the CEO of nScrypt, the micro-dispensing and 3D printing equipment arm of Sciperio, a research and development firm he founded not long after his daughter was born. He labels himself a product of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), an organization whose unofficial motto is “if it’s not almost impossible to do, it’s not worth doing.” In fact, he and his colleagues were awarded their first DARPA contract in the late 1990s, which they soon used to print a radio antenna on an ant’s head.
“The main difference is that we make the cabinet out of stainless steel instead of anodized aluminum, but it's the same technology. We can print collagens. We can print extracellular matrices. We can print biopolymers, and even living cells. What we can’t print are living organs.”
He’s made a career out of printing electronics on such strange surfaces, and suggests that one day General Motors will print electronic circuitry onto the vehicle frame, that Apple might make a smart phone shaped like a pair of sunglasses and Lockheed Martin might make a missile-shaped circuit board. “By eliminating circuit boards and printing electronics directly onto mechanical surfaces, we estimate that we can reduce their manufacturing costs by a factor of ten.”
What does all this have to do with his daughter? The machine that Church uses to print conformal antennae on Kevlar helmets and radio transmitters on glass can also be used to print a wide range of biomaterials. “The main difference is that we make the cabinet out of stainless steel instead of anodized aluminum, but it's the same technology. We can print collagens. We can print extracellular matrices. We can print biopolymers, and even living cells. What we can’t print are living organs.”
The day is coming. Church says he and his partners “are a good number of steps into that,” and have grown bone, skin, and even heart tissue, which soon began beating on its own. What’s missing is the ability to form the complex structures needed to supply blood and remove waste, the elements of “God’s own incubator” that continue to elude researchers.
“At a conceptual level at least, it's not really that tricky,” he said. “It’s too bad my daughter wasn’t born missing part of her liver, because those things almost grow themselves. But printing more complex organs like a lung or a kidney? We’re not there yet. We understand the obstacles and what needs to be done, it’s just a matter of getting over the technological hurdles. One thing’s for sure, tissue engineering and the field of bio-printing will be far different in 10 years than it is today. Hopefully someday I can give her that second lung.”