19 March 2024

The Printed Future Of Transplantology, Or How Science Fiction Became Reality

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The technology of 3D printing is one of the most revolutionary technologies to have emerged in recent decades. 3D printed components, while still stirring up a lot of excitement...
Poland Intellectual Property
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The technology of 3D printing is one of the most revolutionary technologies to have emerged in recent decades. 3D printed components, while still stirring up a lot of excitement, have already made their way into everyday products. Bioprinting has the potential to find wide application in medicine and is considered to be the most exciting development in this field.

Printing has found applications in various fields such as sports equipment, medical accessories, implants, prostheses, furniture, car and aircraft parts, even construction. An example of the large-scale capabilities of this technology is a 12-metre pedestrian bridge in Amsterdam. The bridge was printed entirely in 3D using stainless steel. The bridge was installed over the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal in July 2021 and still remains in place, attracting many tourists.

Bioprinting in Medicine

Three-dimensional (3D) bioprinting is an innovative manufacturing strategy that enables precise placement of biological substances, including living cells and extracellular matrix components, in a defined 3D hierarchical organization to create artificial multicellular systems, tissues, or organs. 3D bioprinting allows for the creation of biological structures that closely resemble their natural counterparts.

Developing living and functional tissues or whole organs by artificial means offers numerous advantages in the field of tissue and organ transplantation. This is particularly important due to the continuing shortage of donors or lack of tissue compatibility.

Sounds like a futuristic vision by Lem, but it is already happening!

The first 3D printed organ to be transplanted into a human in 1999 was a urinary bladder. This was done by scientists from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The success of this endeavour is demonstrated by the fact that the artificial bladder has remained in service and fully functional for several decades.

In 2022, the first functional external ear transplant was performed in San Antonio, Texas. The fortunate recipient of the new body part was a 20-year-old woman born without an ear. The new organ has been made in the size and shape of the female left ear.

United Therapeutics Corporation has 3D printed a scaffold for human lungs. With 4,000 kilometres of capillaries and 200 million alveoli, they can exchange oxygen in animal models. This is a quantum leap towards developing functional, transplantable human lungs. The goal of the United Therapeutics Corporation team is to obtain authorization of human trials within the next five years.

Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have created a portable skin bioprinting system. They anticipate that in the near future, the printer will be placed directly at the bedsides of patients suffering from non-healing wounds, such as burns. After scanning and measuring the wound area, the skin that is missing will be printed layer by layer directly onto the wound surface. The team went a step further and 3D printed skeletal muscle constructs. In rodent tests these have been shown to shrink and regain more than 80% of previously lost foreleg muscle function within eight weeks.

3D printing has already been used to create multi-layered skin, bones, muscle structures, blood vessels, retinal tissue and even mini-organs. Although none of the mentioned products have been approved for human use yet, the pace of the scientific race is breathtaking.

Bionic pancreas from Poland

In the domestic Polish market we also have a significant achievement in the field of 3D bioprinting. In 2019, a scientific and research team from Polbionica, led by Dr Michał Wszoła, M.D., successfully created the world's first fully functional bionic pancreas with a vascular system using 3D bioprinting technology. Our scientists have successfully printed a functional pancreas prototype that maintained a stable blood flow in pigs for a two-week observation period.

Great potential for clinical research

It is worth emphasizing that 3D bioprinting involves more than just printing organs for transplantation. Its potential use in clinical trials and screening new drugs is another significant trend.

In April 2019, researchers at the University of Minnesota made a breakthrough by creating a dynamic 3D bioprinted model of cancer in a laboratory. This innovative model is a valuable tool for testing anti-cancer drugs and investigating their effects on tumour development and early stages of cancer.

The US Food and Drug Administration is considering 3D bioprinting as a viable alternative for assessing the safety and efficacy of drugs. This solution is in line with the current research focus on reducing or eliminating animal testing.

A real treat for investors

The global 3D bioprinting market was valued at $2 billion in 2022. It is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.5% between 2023 and 2030.

Due to the increasing interest in this technology, many companies are choosing to patent their inventions. This is an appropriate way of securing the innovations related to bioprinting. Applications and patents mainly cover the materials, equipment, and software used in bioprinting, such as bioinks, scaffolds, and bioprinters. While the results of bioprinting, such as bioprinted tissues and organs, may have limited marketability, the bioprints themselves are patentable and should not be excluded from patenting.

A diverse range of innovations

Over 8,000 inventions related to bioprinting have been filed to date, with more than half of them being filed in China and the US.

These inventions represent a diverse range of innovations, including US Patent 11,559,389 granted to International Business Machines Corporation. It relates to an artificial tongue that comprises tissue produced by a bioprinting process, an antenna embedded in the tongue tissue that wirelessly receives energy from an external device, a processor also embedded in the tongue tissue that is functionally connected to the antenna, and a piezoelectric element embedded therein and functionally connected to the processor. The piezoelectric element is configured to be deformed in response to an applied voltage.

Equally interesting is patent US 11,559,607, granted to Harvard College, which describes a device for placing a living, perfused tissue construct that can condition blood and act as a partial or total organ replacement, along with methods for manufacturing it. The 3D bioprinted living tissue construct embedded in the apparatus can be implanted in vivo in mammalian patients (humans, dogs, cats, etc.) to replace the whole organ or its part.

The future of bioprinting

Most researchers believe that full-scale 3D printed organ transplants in humans are still a distant possibility, perhaps 20 to 30 years away. However, some scientists predict that eventually we will no longer need donor hearts and livers. The more optimistic among them even claim that we could have printed organs inside us in less than 20 years. This suggests a bright future where what used to be science fiction is now becoming a printed reality before our very eyes.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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