Dear Early Investor,
Richard Greene was a genius or a fool. I still don’t know which.
I met him in the ’80s. He had heard about our biotech mission to Asia, led by my boss, the late and great Governor William Donald Schaefer of Maryland.
He wanted to join us. He had invented a miraculous product, he told me.
“Come see it,” he said. “It’s going to change healthcare forever.”
So he invited me to his office. It wasn’t a real biotech facility, mind you. It had no lab equipment. No sinks or running water.
He sat me down in a generic chair in a generic room. I told him I was expecting to see how he manufactured his product.
“I’m a virtual biotech company,” he said. “I contract everything out.”
Then he showed me a very fine, odorless and slightly tinged powder. “What do you think?” he asked.
“Do I apply it topically or snort it? I asked.
“Neither,” he said. “It’s blood.”
I wasn’t a biologist or biochemist. But I knew there was no such thing as synthetic blood. That’s what I told him.
“It’s not synthetic. It’s real blood in powder form. Add liquid to it and it reverts back to its wet form with all its properties intact.”
So said the head of a virtual biotech company at his virtual facility about his virtual (or not) product.
The product wasn’t fully tested yet, but it had shown enough promise that Richard thought he could raise money for his virtual undertaking in Asia.
So he made the trip with the governor and me, met some big-money men in Singapore and Taiwan and, from what I heard, raised some money.
I eventually lost touch with Richard. His virtual company may have been ahead of his time, but I can’t say I was overly impressed. The whole setup was too ephemeral for my tastes. Substituting a real product with something else didn’t seem quite authentic.
And now, three decades later, I’m forced to confront my old biases, thanks to the marriage of biology with 3-D printing.
I’ve been a bit of a skeptic when it comes to 3-D printing. In an article I penned last year, I said, “3-D printing is a flawed vision built more on fantasy than fact.”
So you can imagine how I feel about scientists printing organic objects with living cells using a pimped-up Lexmark printer.
I’m not kidding. Bioprinting got its start in 2000, when a certain Dr. Boland (then with Clemson University) started experimenting with his old Lexmark inkjet printer.
It so happened that typical inkjet nozzles were just large enough to accommodate most human cells, which tend to be around 25 microns in diameter (a micron is a millionth of a meter).
Jump forward three decades, and there’s now about 80 teams at research institutions around the world trying to print skin, cartilage, blood vessels, livers, lungs and hearts.
Progress Impressive, but a Long Way to Go
Their progress has been impressive.
Some organs and tissues are trickier than others to duplicate. Flat structures are the easiest. They include skin and cartilage.
Hollow and non-tubular organs are harder. They include the bladder, stomach and uterus.
Most difficult are the solid organs, like the heart, liver and kidneys. They have extensive vascular networks, which bioprinters have trouble duplicating.
Skin grafts have already been done. They should be the first to be offered commercially. For example, researchers at Wake Forest University are developing a printer used with a laser to scan the size and depth of an injury. It then produces a 3-D topological map of the wounded area, which informs the shape and size of the skin graft.
Cartilage and muscle have also been implanted into patients. So have fairly complex bone structures like jaws, pelvises and hips.
Ears and kidneys have been bioprinted but not implanted.
The Next Frontier
Solid organs are the next frontier.
So far, researchers have been able to make simple blood-vessel structures, but not the more complex ones that the heart and other solid organs need.
Dr. Bowland and others are working on the problem. San Diego startup Organovo is the world’s first publicly traded 3-D bioprinting company. It has licensed Dr. Boland’s original cell-printing patent. It has also incorporated inkjet technology into its current systems.
Organovo hopes to bioprint something resembling a microscopic tree, like the vascular network of the human liver (shown below).
Researchers from the University of Sydney, MIT, Harvard and Stanford may have beaten Organovo to the punch. In a study published on June 30, they claim to have successfully bioprinted blood vessels.
“It’s a game changer,” says Dr. Luiz Bertassoni, the study’s lead author.
“Imagine,” he says, “being able to walk into a hospital and have a full organ bioprinted – with all the cells, proteins, and blood vessels in the right place, simply by pushing the ‘print’ button on your computer screen.”
How Far Away?
Not far. Ten years down the road if the government is on board, according to sources. That sounds like a best-case scenario to me. With all the clinical testing that would have to be done, 15 to 20 years is more realistic.
Organovo is leading the charge. It has already bioprinted human blood vessels and liver tissue. It’s now developing bioprinted breast cancer tissues alongside lung and muscle tissues. Later this year, it plans to begin commercial sales.
A handful of other labs have also reached the bioprinting stage. China’s Hangshou Dianzi University has a 3-D printer called Regenovo. It printed a small working kidney that lasted four months.
Using a modified inkjet printer, Princeton University printed a “bionic ear” onto a petri dish.
And Belgium-based company Mobelife implanted a printed customized hip into a 15-year-old Swedish girl, allowing her to walk again.
Monash University in Australia prints tissue-less human components such as limbs, chests, abdomens, heads and necks. It wants to replace cadavers. That way, “people don’t have to die so that medical students can learn.”
Monash is sidestepping what is sure to become a contentious debate on the ethics of what can be implanted. In the meantime, the technology will be used for medical research, a big market unto itself.
Says Dr. Boland in a paper he wrote back in 2003 with three colleagues, “Cell and organ printers will be as broadly used as biomedical research tools as was the electron microscope in the 20th century.”
We’ll see more bioprinting startups emerge in the coming decade. Many will come from university settings. With lab facilities backed by first-class science and deep pockets, they’re the ones best suited to nurture such enterprises.
The transplant space is ripe for disruption. And disruption, led by bioprinting startups, is headed its way.