How bioprinted organs are changing our world
If everyone were to stand in a single-file line, patients on the U.S. organ transplant waiting list would form a line over 70 miles long. The line would be five times longer than the island of Manhattan. Patients can wait in that line for four months to five years, and every hour, one person dies before reaching the end. Despite best efforts to ensure a match, one-third of patients will experience organ rejection and will need to wait in line again.
The long wait times in the United States are largely due to a shortage of organs for transplant. There are ongoing campaigns across the country to raise awareness and improve opt-in organ donor rates. Even still, only three in 1,000 deaths provide transplantable organs.
That’s the reality most of us are familiar with and the one that nearly all of us live in. But if you take a look along the cutting-edge front of what’s possible in modern medicine you will see researchers—and, more recently, patients—who are taking part in novel therapies that could one day eliminate the need for an organ transplant waiting list.
Bioprinting is a young but fast-growing research and technology field that first started in 1983 when the invention of stereolithography created a method of 3D printing human tissue. By 1999, researchers at Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine were using 3D printers to create scaffolds of human organs. In 2004, Dr. Anthony Atala from the Boston Children’s Hospital bioprinted and transplanted a bladder for an 11-year-old boy using the patient’s own cells.
Two Fields Become One
Bioprinting is a combination of biological and 3D printing. By leveraging biomaterial engineering and adapting novel manufacturing techniques developed for typical 3D printers, bioprinting researchers are carving a niche conceivably beyond the horizons of possibility.
The prototypical bioprinter was invented in 2000 when Professor Thomas Boland, a researcher from the University of El Paso, liberally modified the inkjet printer in his office. Professor Boland emptied the printer ink cartridge, refilled it with collagen and put a sheet of black silicon into the paper tray. Then, when he printed his initials “TB” using proteins, he effectively became the grandfather of bioprinting.
In 2016, Cellink was founded to start supporting bioprinting researchers’ fast-growing needs. The company designs and develops bioprinters with the goal of making bioprinting technology user-friendly and reliable, and employs their own in-house team of biomaterial engineers and scientists to provide users with around-the-clock customer support.
With robust technology made accessible, bioprinting researchers are already revolutionizing corneal transplants. Cornea donations are severely lacking due to low opt-in rates and low usability rates among older donors. In 2018, a research team at Florida A&M University began a project to develop the world’s first high-throughput method for bioprinting human corneas. In June 2019, their team succeeded. Professor Mandip Sachdeva used Cellink’s BIO X bioprinter to bioprint a cornea made of human cells. According to Professor Sachdeva, one of the biggest benefits of his method is its speed.
“We can print multiple corneas in a matter of minutes using a scaffold specially designed by our laboratory,” he said.
Help for Diabetics
Meanwhile researchers across the world are seeking to overcome another set of challenges using bioprinting. In Poland, more than 10,000 diabetics are eligible for a pancreas transplant, which is the only treatment known to cure diabetes permanently. Yet only 40 of these transplants are performed per year—and the only limiting factor is the shortage of donated organs.
“There must be a way to help patients so that they don’t have to wait years for a transplant,” said Dr. Michał Wszoła. “They wait every minute for the call while knowing that diabetes is destroying their body every second.”
Dr. Wszoła knew that treating diabetic patients with pancreas transplantation had the best long-term prognosis. He conducted some animal studies with promising results, but needed to figure out a way to prevent apoptosis—automated cell death—which was occurring in response to transplanted pancreatic islet cells.
“After a lot of research, I learned about a very interesting technique called bioprinting that could potentially overcome all of these hurdles,” he said.
After establishing a consortium and receiving funding, Dr. Wszoła began working toward developing a method leveraging bioprinting to cure diabetes.
On March 14, 2019, his team used Cellink’s BIO X to bioprint a bionic pancreas using tailored bioinks and pancreatic islet samples. Its response to glucose stimuli was perfect, and they conducted four additional experiments with similar results. Beyond offering a timely cure for diabetes, Dr. Wszoła’s technology could one day be used in drug development and as an aid in the screening of new cancer therapies.
Burns and Skin
Some bioprinting methods have successfully moved out of the lab and into clinical trials. Last year, Cellink entered a partnership with GE Healthcare and Umeå University to begin treating burn patients with skin bioprinted using their own cells. The partnership aims to develop transplantable skin constructs that can provide burn patients with a higher quality of life.
Traditionally, patients with severe burns receive keratinocyte-based epidermal sheet transplants. However, these transplants cannot replace sweat glands, nerves or vasculature, leaving patients far from cured. Patients need to moisturize twice daily and stay inside when it’s too warm, and they experience additional pain and itching with no treatment option but to reduce overall activity.
Cellink is combining expertise with Umeå University and GE Healthcare to develop alternative transplants that promote nerve regeneration and reduce patient suffering at the source. The new transplants will contain sebaceous glands, the types of cells that can regenerate dermal layers, nerves and vasculature, providing an innovative solution to improve patients’ quality of life. The project will be conducted through collaborations with burn centers in Norway, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands, and the researchers aim to begin treating patients sometime in 2020.
Only The Beginning
It’s difficult to predict all of the ways an unprecedented technology like bioprinting will affect the ways professionals treat their patients, but looking at some of the milestones researchers have already achieved suggests that the effects will be profound. As the leading provider of bioprinting solutions, Cellink is looking forward to designing technologies that advance and accelerate capabilities, finding new ways to support researchers’ continued achievements in the field and creating a better future of medicine for all.
Erik Gatenholm is co-founder and CEO at Cellink.
Anne Sexton is an editor and writer at Cellink.