The industry of additive manufacturing is by no means a brand new and ground-breaking concept. In fact, additive manufacturing has been said to have emerged during the 80’s, the technology has developed in the past 30 years. Engineers can print a range of materials via a variety of methods such as Fused Deposition Modelling, Stereolithography, Digital Light Processing etc. You can see more about the history of the industry here.
To define the process simply, 3D printing – also known as additive manufacturing – starts with a design being digitally uploaded. The printer will then use this model as the template from which it will use to create the new structure. A process takes place involving the repeated action of layers of the desired material being deposited on top of one another until the final 3D structure is completed.
The development of additive manufacturing technology and interest in the potential applications still has not stopped and will continue to evolve. Medical scientists have been performing research into the area of bioprinting for decades. This is the use of human tissue as the material which will be layered to create a finished product which is a complex 3D structure which could be a functioning organ or anatomical structure.
Additive manufacturing already has a presence within the healthcare industry. Dental crowns, bridges and braces as well as customised hearing aids are currently being produced in large volumes on a day to day. Technology developments will be necessary before this becomes common practice however the advantages of such a process range from organ transplants to prosthetic limbs and beyond. So why is it that bioprinting has been highlighted by many as an industry that will grow considerably in next decade?
The population is ageing considerably, it is expected that the number of people aged over 65 is expected to treble in the next 40 years, interestingly this will lead to the world having more over 65’s than under 5’s. Despite improvements in healthcare, the incidence of chronic diseases increases significantly amongst over 65’s. For example, there is over twice as many heart attacks in over 65's than under 65's, due to the advances in medicine more people are able to live with chronic diseases however it is likely to place an increased demand on healthcare services.
In addition to us getting older, there are also more of us. The population has doubled in the last 40 years and it is likely that the number is going to keep rising. This effectively means the volume of people in need of medical treatment is far greater than it was a few decades ago. The increased population can easily lead to the spread disease, air pollution and water contamination which ultimately cycles back to a higher incidence of chronic illness.
Society generally tend to live an unhealthier lifestyle, fast or processed food, smoking, alcohol and pollution play a larger role in day to day life and have been shown to be directly linked to several chronic diseases such as diabetes, chronic kidney disease and cardiovascular disease. This is becoming such a problem that the World Health Organisation believe that chronic diseases could account for almost 75% of all deaths across the world within the next 5 years.
Research is still ongoing into the human anatomy and diseases, an effective way to identify of a treatment will be successful is to trial the drug or therapy on live tissue. If cells are printed it allows researchers to have more control over the testing environment and conditions to produce more accurate and effective results.
Pharmaceutical research and development is a multi-billion-dollar business and corporations are constantly looking for the next avenue to optimise the testing process. To successfully produce and gain approval for a new drug can take many years and billions of dollars, this is primarily due to the volume of specific animal testing and human trialling required before a drug is approved to be launched onto the market.
A higher incidence of chronic diseases, may lead to a higher incidence of chronic diseases is resulting in an increased demand for organ transplants worldwide, however the list of donors is not increasing at the same rate as those in need of a transplant. The strain to healthcare is not limited to organs transplants but bioprinting also has applications for prosthesis. Chronic diseases have attribute to as much if not more amputations as trauma in the united states, bioprinting will enable the production of individually customised prosthesis that can be made quicker and cheaper. If the ongoing research into bioprinting is successful this would lead to a huge increase demand from the public and private healthcare providers.
If tissue can be printed that accurately mimic human tissue then it could be used as a test material for drug makers to use during the trial phase of new products. Drugs passing this phase of the trial are expected to be significantly less likely to fail during the animal testing and human testing trials which are both time consuming and costly phases of the process. This would have significant implications on the pharmaceutical industry, effectively would enable drug companies test products quicker and use less resources.
Currently scientists appear to be more focused on printing micro-organs because creating 3D structures of living cells the size of adult organs requires the recreation of the network of blood vessels required to provide the tissue with the oxygen necessary to survive. In addition to this, some organs have such a high degree of structural complexity so it is not yet possible to print a full-size version made from human tissue. Scientists are confident that a printed 3D heart is less than a decade away, so it is only a matter of time until the potential applications above may become a reality and certain factors will have to be taken into consideration.
Bioprinting is an artificial production of cells and could enter a category similar, although maybe not to the same magnitude as, the ‘human cloning debate’. There will be an ethical matter to overcome and it may be some time before the applications of this technology are widely trusted and accepted by patients and drug users.
A printed organ that is successfully transplanted still has the potential to experience complications or fail post-surgery. In the event this does happen, who is liable – the manufacturer, the professional that printed the organ, the hospital or clinic, the surgeon performing the procedure? – no doubt a topic for discussion.
There may be regulatory hurdles to overcome in the future however there is no doubt that bioprinting has the potential to extend and save lives and this has resulted in more interest in the additive manufacturing sector. Leading multinationals are investing in, and working with 3D printing manufacturers, leveraging the technology for healthcare as well as other applications. Recent examples include Stryker with GE Additive (formerly Concept Laser and Arcam), Johnson & Johnson teamed up with Organovo a have acquired 3D printing technology from Tissue Regeneration Systems, and Straumann increasing their stake in Rapid Shape.
I, personally, am fascinated to see how and the speed at which the technology will develop and look forward to seeing the impact this will have on the medical devices market.