Doctor Gabor Forgacs of the University of Missouri is one of the clever people working to make bioprinting a reality; via Fabbaloo, here’s an interview with him at PopTech:
We have worked with pharmaceutical companies, most of which spend $1 billion to develop and market a drug, if it is successful. When they go from animal trials to human clinical trials there is a good chance that they will lose the drug. In fact, 65% of the drugs that are developed in the labs that go through successful animal trials are thrown away once human clinical trials commence because what is good for the animal is not good for the human.
We tell them, we’re going to print you a truly 3D little organoid – let’s say a liver from human cells. We take human liver cells and we build a 3D little teeny tiny liver that still can be maintained in culture and we tell them, OK, why don’t you try the drug on the 3D human structure and if the drug does not work and the little liver dies, well then don’t go any further because chances are that when you put it into a human, it’s not going to work. We are already working with some pharmaceutical companies and they realize the value of this.
Even if we’re never able to print an organ, which I don’t believe, because there are already good results, our ability to print expanded 3D structures will have serious and very far-reaching implications and applicability in many other places.
Grimly fascinating reading over at Wired, where there’s one of those infografficky-mashup articles about the international trade in illicitly-obtained human organs and body parts. Even when we’ve reached a point when we can reliably print off spare parts for our meat-machines, the ol’ global wealth gap pretty much ensures that there’ll be a cheaper option overseas if you’ve got the right contacts. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “unbranded spares from China”, doesn’t it?
Speaking of news reappearing a year later (we’re risking some sort of multi-node self-reflective temporal singularity here at Futurismic, folks, so hang on to your hats): this time last year The Economist ran a piece on “printing” human organs for transplant; this week, we have a piece at Discovery on a bioprinter that takes a few cells as a sample and knocks up a sheet of new skin [via BigThink]. All good news… though it’s worth remembering the spectre of genetic intellectual property disputes lurks in the wings awaiting its musical cue (I’m thinking bassoons with a hint of cello, plus stabs of Moog voluntary), meaning that spats about the copyright status of fabbed creations may shift from discussing physical reproductions of optical illusions to claiming someone cloned your liver without your permission. As snarkily suggested last week, at least there’s plenty of work in the pipeline for the legal professions. Shame we can’t just print them off when we need them and then churn them up for feedstock, hmmm?
This year seems like it’ll be the one where the mainstream starts talking about custom-made replacement organs as something more than science fiction. A few weeks back we heard about the rat who got a new set of lab-grown lungs; this week, Wired is running a photo-essay on bioprinting that’s a must-see for anyone who wants to be able to write a plausible description of the working environment of a contemporary Frankenstein.
Meanwhile [via BoingBoing] Ecouterre reports on UK-based designer Suzanne Lee, who’s been using bacteria to grow an entire range of clothing from a rather mundane starting point – sweetened green tea. The end results are made entirely of cellulose, though they look (to me at least) like the skin of something that still slinks through radiation-soaked cities long after the posthumans abandoned Earth for the new terrain at the top of the gravity well…
Organic ain’t yer only option, though, no sir. 3D printing means one-off custom designs of mechanical prosthetic limb can be made for amputees or other folk with different levels of physical ability… and not just for us longpigs, either, as Oscar the cyborg cat ably demonstrates. 3D printing is still an unevenly distributed piece of the future, of course, but it’s spreading fast; Ponoko have just set up their first 3D print hub here in the UK, and if they can afford to do that in the current economic climate, the business model must have something going for it, right?
It’s interesting to see the organic and inorganic racing along in parallel like this; it doesn’t take a genius to see the possibilities of the two streams converging somewhere down the line, though I’d guess that’s a good few decades off from the present day. What’s interesting to me about these phenomena is the way they seem to be an end-game expression of the desire for individuality and customisation; at the moment, price will keep all but those with a serious need for these products out of the market, but as prices fall, everything will become bespoke, unique, a one-off. Which is kind of ironic if you think about it: through the total ubiquity of mechanised manufacture, we’re actually putting an end to mass production.
The idea of printing replacement biological tissue and organs has been around for a while – we mentioned the development the pressure-assisted spinning system back in 2007, in fact – but it looks like it’s finally reached the point where people think they can make a profit from it on a commercial scale. Via io9, The Economist tells us about Organovo and their US$200,000-a-pop commercially-available bio-printer:
To start with, only simple tissues, such as skin, muscle and short stretches of blood vessels, will be made, says Keith Murphy, Organovo’s chief executive, and these will be for research purposes. Mr Murphy says, however, that the company expects that within five years, once clinical trials are complete, the printers will produce blood vessels for use as grafts in bypass surgery. With more research it should be possible to produce bigger, more complex body parts. Because the machines have the ability to make branched tubes, the technology could, for example, be used to create the networks of blood vessels needed to sustain larger printed organs, like kidneys, livers and hearts.
I can’t wait to see what uses the street will find for this technology once it gets cheaper…
… no, scratch that. I think maybe I can wait after all.