Biotech research: The future of bioprinting

Biotech research: The future of bioprinting

In the latest biotech research, scientists are looking at bioprinting to change the landscape of medicine and therapeutics.

The fabrication of biomedical parts results in products that closely mimic natural tissues in characteristics and morphology. The living cells and layering biomaterials are used as bio-inks in bioprinting technology. They possess specific physicochemical properties to biologically compatible (with tissue they imitate) and adequately robust tissues. Like 3D printing, bioprinting also uses a digital file as a blueprint.

Bioprinters put down layers of biocompatible materials and cells to produce organ parts, human tissues, and small organs for research. Although this technology is relatively new, it has revolutionary and far-reaching potential applications in drug development and clinical settings, from organs for transplant to drug discovery. Bioprinted organs have been used in cancer proliferation and pathology research and for efficacy and safety testing of drugs. Below is a summary of potential clinical applications of bioprinting.

Bioprinting of organs

The demand for organ transplantation has been growing for the past two decades. End-stage organ failures have increased the demand for transplantable healthy organs over time and surpassed their supply, resulting in an organ shortage crisis. Even if a suitable donor is available, it may cause complications in case of immune response and organ rejection by the host system. Therefore, there is a dire need for a technology that can meet rapidly increasing demands with the minimum risk of rejection. Bioprinting can be a promising technology to solve the problems at hand as it can help create organs for patients by using their cells to minimize the chances of rejection.

Here are a few uses of bioprinting:

  • Skin tissue — Skin fabrication has immense potential for wound reconstruction and healing. Many scientists have successfully fabricated human skin through bioprinting. The primary cells from the outmost layer of skin — cells for structural framework — and scaffolding biomaterials are used as bio-ink in skin fabrication. Even skin tissues with varying amounts of melanin content are bioprinted using melanin-producing cells that control the skin complexion. However, scientists are yet to successfully fabricate skin with complete anatomy and physiology as natural skin.
  • Cardiac tissue — It is viable to create fabricated cardiac patches to replace damaged cardiac tissues through bioprinting. In 2019, scientists successfully bioprinted a compatible and complete heart as a functional organ, mimicking the natural. 
  • Corneal tissue — Infections and disorders related to the cornea are the fourth leading of blindness. The cornea has a low thickness and does not need integration of blood vessels, proving it an outstanding candidate for bioprinting. Collagen and stromal cells are used as bio-inks in the fabrication of cornea. It is also shown that resulting fabricated corneas are viable after production.


Bioprinting in drug discovery and development

Technological interventions have shifted in vitro drug testing from 2D to 3D technology. 3-D model environments can closely mimic tissue micro-environments and cellular interactions with improved and more accurate results than 2D models. Tissue fabrication with bioprinting can construct successful 3D models for drug testing as an accelerating milestone in drug development.

For example, scientists have used miniature human organs, also known as organoids, during the pandemic to study the COVID-19 infection. Before bioprinting technology, organoid culturing was done in pipettes and manual handling. Now, laboratories can produce thousands of organoids in hours with 3D bioprinting.

However, an organoid is not enough to complete drug testing and development research; it is necessary to replicate the native environment of an organ to study the effects of a drug or substance. Scientists were successful in integrating microfluidic technology with bioprinting to solve the problem. This integration enabled them to produce "organs-on-a-chip" devices that can overcome such loopholes in research. Hence, bioprinting is a game-changer in drug development and discovery by creating artificial in vitro environments with functional properties like real organs.


Vascular integration of the organs is the biggest challenge in bioprinting

Although bioprinting is a promising technology to revolutionize the medical field and drug discovery, one problem struck the untiring efforts of the scientists hard. In mimicking the natural environment, the correct and functional integration of the blood vessel network is the most significant limitation in bioprinting technology. The printed organs cannot absorb nutrients, remove wastes, and perform other necessary functions without a good network of vessels. Inability to perform vital functions leads to the malfunctioning of printed organs.

Nonetheless, scientists are continuing to research ways how they can leverage bioprinting for the advancement of medicine. 


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