Bioprinting is a form of 3D printing, which uses a blueprint and cells to create organ-like structures that imitate the natural organs we find in our bodies. It utilises ‘bioinks’ of cells and nutrients to create a 3D Matrix and fabricate normal human structures.
Bioprinting offers a wealth of possibilities in biomedical engineering and drug discovery. The early stages of drug discovery commonly rely on small-scale tests on human volunteers, which can be dangerous, time-consuming, and expensive. Using bioprinted tissues and organs in the early stages can allow for the efficacy of a drug to be assessed earlier on in a safer and more ethical way, leading to better results for drug companies. It can also allow for drugs that are ineffective or dangerous to be identified sooner, placing less risk on the healthy human volunteers in early phase testing and allowing the drug companies to focus on other avenues, leading to less failures in the clinical trial phases. Tissue engineering is also currently being used to treat diseases in more simple structures: scientists can successfully grow and transplant bladder cells for those suffering from bladder failure, reducing any risk of rejection by using the patient’s own cells; and University of Toronto engineers have generated a handheld bioprinter which can be used to print skin grafts for burn victims.
Although bioprinting has been used in humans for more simple components of the body, fully-functioning 3D organs seems to be a way off. The list of people requiring organ transplants is growing, and bioprinting may be an effective way to produce artificial organs that function normally, reducing the transplant list and therefore the number of associated deaths. This has however only currently been achieved in rodent models, and there are more issues than just ethical confinements preventing it. Full organs require complex transport systems (including blood vessels which have tiny capillaries that are difficult to model, let alone print), electrical signals, and more than one type of tissue to complete their functions, making them significantly harder to 3D print. However, there is hope that bioprinting will be highly effective in the future – further research suggests that advances in 3D printing can be used to untangle the complexities of individual organs and print much more effective fabricated versions for use in transplantation.