Finding Its Niche in Biodefense: Bioprinting

By Alena M. James

Three-Dimensional printing has become a major controversial topic in the new age technology sector for the past few years now. Earlier this month, Yoshitomo Imura was arrested in Kawaski, Japan after using his 3-D printer to build five guns; two of which held the capability to fire bullets. This is an example of the potential dangers of 3-D printing. In April, a private company working in Shanghai used 3-D printers to print 10 full-sized houses in approximately 24 hours. This demonstrates the technology’s potential utility in building development. The benefits and risks of 3-D printing continue to be illustrated via innovators, but there has not yet been a clear consensus on the accepted utility of this advancing technology.

However, on the medical front these machines have proved incredibly advantageous. 3-D printers have advanced the medical field by allowing the creation of artificial limbs for patients, skin grafs for burn victims, and even noses for patients requiring facial reconstruction.  Despite the ambiguity of whether or not 3-D printing induces more harm than good or more good than harm for society, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has found a significant utility for this rising technology in the biodefense world.

Last week, DTRA announced the new role for 3-D printers in biodefense research. According to DTRA, using 3-D printers in countermeasures research against chemical and biological weapons would allow for scientists to rapidly produce human tissue on which treatments against chemical and biological agents can be tested.

The technique is known as bioprinting—the use of 3-D printers to develop human tissues and organs.  In bioprinting, a specialized 3-D printer is designed to disseminate viable cells that can strategically lay the framework to biofabricate organoids—smaller version of organs. Ears and skin have been the two most common organs that have been developed via this technology.

Studies at Harvard University have helped to pique DTRA’s interest in bioprinting. So far, the Harvard Scientists have successfully developed 3-D organoids that can survive for at least eight days. The length of viability is significant, because it allows more time for testing to be performed on sensitive organisms like bacteria.

If DTRA scientists can test the effectiveness of treatments against biological or chemical weapons on bioprinted human tissue, they maintain the capacity to evaluate these treatments in more accurate human models without harming actual patients. Using biofrabricated systems will also enable DTRA scientists to determine the best countermeasures against these types of weapons without solely relying on animal modeling systems. These types of studies are traditionally condemned due to ethical concerns for the animals and are limited in producing side effects that are associated within the human model.  By using human tissue fabricated from 3-D printers, scientists reduce animal testing trials and gain a more accurate understanding of the effectiveness of the treatments being investigated. The fabrication of organoids may also allow drug testing to occur at a faster pace saving time and money in the research field.

One of the leading companies of this technology is Organovo. The company focuses on developing structurally and functionally accurate human tissue models used in medical research. The process of bioprinting requires several steps to produce the intended tissue or organ type. First, a design of the target tissue must be created. Second, the key architectural and compositional elements of the tissue must be identified. Third, the software must be used to develop a printing protocol.  Fourth, a bioprocess is required to develop the bio-ink for the project. Bio-ink comes from cells involved in the development of the tissue copy. Fifth, the ink gets dispensed from the bioprinter layer-by-layer building the tissue in 3-D.

Although the process outlined above appears simple, bioprinting still requires more investigative studies to truly evaluate its advantages and disadvantages.  However, it is quite exciting to know that the technique is finding a significant role in to the Biodefense realm.


(Image Credit. Image Caption: The scaffolding for two replacement ears printed is shown above. Prior to bioprinting replacement ears were developed from rib cartilage.)

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