Although it has captured the public imagination, bioprinting fully functioning vascularized whole organs won't become a reality any time soon. Nor does it need to, says Ibrahim Ozbolat, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Iowa (UI; Iowa City, IA). "That will be very challenging. But we can bioprint something that functions in a similar manner and meets the needs of the patient. It's more realistic to print a simulacrum that performs the same function rather than an exact replica," Ozbolat told PlasticsToday. His research at UI on bioprinting blood vessels and pancreatic, bone, and cartilage tissue is advancing that technology. He will share his expertise next month at the MD&M West exhibition and conference in Anaheim, CA, during a session titled, "The realities, myths, and future potential of bioprinting."
Bioprinting is not simply 3D printing a scaffold or some other nonliving implantable part, notes Ozbolat. It involves printing with live cells in various constructs, and one of the technology's hurdles has been keeping those cells alive throughout the process.
Much of Ozbolat's research at UI has been focused on bioprinting perfusable vasculature tissues that will allow fluids to circulate through blood vessels. "The ultimate goal is to print organs," says Ozbolat, but getting to that end point has been difficult because cells need nutrients to live, and blood vessels and capillaries are hard to organize into a network. "Think of it like a tree, where the branches grow out and divide into ever smaller branches. Advances have been made, but the big question is: How do you integrate small capillaries into that network?"
Ozbolat's current project involves reconstruction of cranial tissue on rat models, where the defects are smaller than 6 mm in diameter. "It starts as a tissue construct that, because of its size, does not need significant vascularization, and leads to tissue regeneration," explains Ozbolat.
Skin, corneas, bladder, and cartilage that don't require significant vascularization are relatively easy to print using current technology, says Ozbolat. "We can bioprint small tissue constructs that can be implanted to repair part of a heart or bone," he adds.
Drug discovery and testing is a burgeoning application area for bioprinted tissue, and the technology has also found an application in cosmetics testing. 3D bioprinting pioneer Organovo recently announced that it is working with cosmetics giant L'Oréal to develop bioprinted skin for testing purposes. San Diego–based Organovo also has teamed up with the Yale School of Medicine to develop bioprinted implants. Their goal is to have bioprinted tissue in clinical trials in the next five years and to have a kidney available for toxicity testing in 2016.
The technology, clearly, is advancing at breathtaking speed, and Ozbolat fully expects to see bioprinters transitioning into the operating room within the next two to three years. "Initial applications will be limited to skin tissue repair, small cranial defects, plastic surgery, and so forth," he says, but no replacement pancreas or liver. Yet.
Ozbolat's paper on the realities, myths, and future potential of bioprinting is part of a daylong conference devoted to 3D printing and medical technology scheduled for Feb. 10 at MD&M West, the largest medtech event in the United States. The three day exhibition and conference is co-located with PLASTEC West at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, CA, from Feb. 10 to 12.