3D printing is a hot topic in the medical science circles these days. After nearly two decades of existence, 3D printing has blossomed from a pigeonholed manufacturing tool into a thriving $2.7 billion dollar industry today.

Using materials such as plastic, metal, or even chocolate, 3D printing has been responsible for the production of a wide variety of items, varying from different types of jewelry, car parts, food, to musical instruments. Scientists have been tracking this developing industry and are now working to implement this same process into the medical field.

Before getting too excited one must realize that 3D printing using metal, plastic, and other materials is drastically less complex than reproducing living cells. This is not to say we won’t see bioprinting implemented through the medical industry in the near future, yet one must be much more cautious and patient in realizing that we are dealing with a living matter.

Bioprinting is the replicating of actual human cells necessary to produce organs, so that the body can recognize and acknowledge these organs in order to function adequately. Having an efficient, finished product that functions properly is much more important than being the first to put one’s product on display for all to see.

With that being said, the idea of bioprinting is catching on rapidly. From 2008 to 2011 the number of scientific material referencing bioprinting nearly tripled. Investors have been taking notice as well. Since 2007, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health have awarded $600,000 in grants to bioprinting projects. Last year Organovo, a pioneer in bioprinting, raised $24.7 million in equity 1. Bioengineers have begun printing body part prototypes, such as heart valves, ears, artificial bones, joints, and skin grafts.

Organovo comprehends the potential capabilities of bioprinting and they envision a process that could reshape the industry of regenerative medicine and drug innovation. Executive Vice President of Commercial Operations at Organovo Michael Renard, describes the process of tissue engineering they have put into practice as:

..if you take your sources of cells, you compare those cells in a very specific way and those cells are precisely deposited with the use of a precision instrument, which is in our case a 3-D bioprinted process, we can deposit those cells in 3-D. Those cells, given that circumstance, will then signal each other and formal a final tissue and this is all being done as a function of the inherent developmental biology that these cells are programmed by. 2

Organovo is combining both their own knowledge in tissue engineering with the biological process cells use to act naturally. This aids in a fluid transition from finished, manipulated cells to cells performing instinctively on their own. These cells’ interacting naturally is what makes all observing excited about things to come.

Engineers at Organovo are using cells to create a fully functional human tissue, without having to depend on any artificial or biomaterial, resulting in a solid, freestanding piece of tissue. Earlier this year, Organovo published data on the tissue found in their fully functional liver model. Like a normal liver, their model was able to produce proteins such as albumin and transferrin, along with the biosynthesis of cholesterol.

Organovo’s bioprinting process description:

Slightly before the time Organovo’s data became public, drug companies such as Pfizer and United Therapeutics had already gained interest in Organovo’s technology for drug discovery and hammered out deals with the company, realizing its potential. In January, the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health and Science University struck a deal with Organovo as well, as they recognized the likely benefit of in vitro 3-D cancer models to aid the findings of innovative cancer therapeutics.

Forming alliances with these groups is only one part of the company’s business model. Organovo has plans to debut its own line of ready-to-use functional tissue, intended for research and drug pathology use. Beginning with a 3D bioprinted liver tissue expected to debut in 2014. Their other objective, which requires FDA approval, is to develop a functional tissue, ready to be implement into the human body to repair or replace a damaged tissue.

While we seem to be a good ways away from seeing 3D bioprinted human organ, Renard reminds us that it is more realistic to think of 3D bioprinting as a means to grow tissues for treatments. Imagine creating a cardiac muscle to be used to repair a damaged heart, not the use of bioprinting to replace the heart completely. Maybe someday, but small steps need to be made before a giant leap like that.

About the Author: Ben Woodruff is a writer for the 3D Printing Channel. For more information go to www.3DPrintingChannel.com.

1. Leckart, Steven. “How 3-D Printing Body Parts Will Revolutionize Medicine. “Popular Science. N.p., 6 Aug. 2013. Web. 06 Sept. 2013.

2. Parmar, Arundhati. “Organovo Aims to Remake Medical Landscape With 3-D Bioprinted Human Tissue (video).” MDDI RSS. Medical Device and Diagnostic Industry, 19 July 2013. Web. 06 Sept. 2013.