Inaccurate reports on bioprinting functional organs run the risk of raising false expectations within the public, with the inevitable “let downs” that follow. These are made even more intense by the “life and death” nature of some organ transplants. Yet, bioprinting is opening up some truly amazing possibilities in the field of regenerative medicine and stem cell-derived tissues, that could result in significant life expectancy and quality of life improvements. A detailed paper published on Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering, by a team of researchers at the University of Victoria, analyzes the state of bioprinting with stem cells to accurately answer the questions on many people’s minds: what can we bioprint today? And what can we achieve in the foreseeable future in terms of regenerative medicine applications?
The number of hyped up articles announcing the impending arrival of “bioficial”, lab-produced, 3D bioprinted, complex human organs has been increasing, as rapidly as the speed at which bioprinting technologies are becoming more affordable and available. However, while the latter is an undeniable fact (with both low-cost and advanced, professional bioprinters truly disrupting education and research on regenerative medicine), the former is an outright inaccuracy. This misrepresentation is largely due to widespread ignorance in generalist media regarding, in particular, the real possibilities offered by bioprinting (coupled with some clickbaiting hype).
We reached out to Stephanie Willerth, Ph.D., P.Eng., co-author of the study, who is also Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Engineering, Associate Director of the Centre for Biomedical Research and a Member of the International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries (ICORD) at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Division of Medical Sciences, University of Victoria. Dr. Willerth answered our questions on some of the key points detailed in the paper, which you can read below. However we strongly recommend reading the full document, which is available for free, to understand exactly where we stand on the real applications of bioprinting (for adipose tissue, blood vessels, bone, cardiac tissue, cardiac valve replacements, cartilage, liver, muscle tissue, neural tissue, pancreas) and the possible future developments for bioprinting technologies, materials and applications.
Davide Sher: What are the main advantages that bioprinting offers to a scientist researching regenerative medicine applications?
Stephanie Willerth: “In my opinion, bioprinting will enable two major advantages over current tissue engineering strategies using stem cells. The first advantage will be speeding up the fabrication process – many tissue engineering strategies are low throughput and require multiple steps to encapsulate stem cells into hydrogels. 3D bioprinting will enable the rapid production of such tissues while minimizing the potential for contamination associated with tissue culture. The second advantage will come as 3D printing technologies evolve will be more consistency due to the digital files used to generate such engineered tissues, which will lead to more reproducible end products.”
DS: How is bioprinting helping to advance regenerative medicine today?
SW: “Bioprinting has made an impact in how pharmaceutical companies use these engineered tissues as tools for screening potential drugs. They also have given insight into the processes behind how such tissues form in vivo.”
DS: Do you feel that adoption of bioprinting technologies by the scientific community has increased significantly over the past two years?
SW: “In general, 3D printing has really taken off in terms of adoption by a wide variety of industries. Accordingly, a number of bioprinting companies fill this space providing technologies ranging from inexpensive low-end bioprinting like SE3D to high-end technologies like Aspect Biosystems.”
DS: What are in your view the biggest challenges that need to be overcome in order for bioprinting to advance into more complex regenerative medicine applications?
SW: “Vascularization of tissues remains challenging and the inability to produce and maintain a stable network of blood vessels must be addressed to scale up the size of engineered tissues. Ensuring successful integration of these vessels must also be achieved for transplantation applications.”
DS: Which are the primary real applications of bioprinting with stems cells today, in terms of human tissues and organs?
SW: “These engineered tissues derived from stem cells enable scientists to produce functional constructs from human cells. In my opinion, the two major areas for immediate impact are contributing to how we understand how stem cells and their associated processes form tissues during development and as tools for screening the efficacy and toxicity of potential of drug targets in more accurate fashion.”
DS: Can you expand on which ones in your opinion are the most promising in terms of developing REAL (as in commercially available) therapeutical and or /tissue replacement/grafting applications?
SW: “I would think skin and cartilage due to their level of complexity and accessibility would be the easiest to translate for clinical applications in the short.”
DS: Finally, how far do you think – if it can be estimated at all – are we from bioprinting a functional organ such as a liver or a kidney?
SW: “I think it will be competition between two tissue engineering strategies for replacing whole organs. The first strategy will use increasingly complex 3D printing strategies and the second strategy involves the repopulation of decellularized cadaveric organics using stem cells, in terms of whole organ transplantation.”
DS: It is possible to envision today a mix of processes – which include but are not limited to bioprinting – that would make this possible in the future?
SW: “I can see a combination of strategies using 3D printing to repair portions of donor organs as many donor organs do not meet the quality controls necessary for transplantation. Thus, using 3D printing to rejuvenate such damaged organ could be used to address limited donor supplies.”