3-D printer builds miniature organs

The human body could represent the next frontier of 3-D printing, based on work at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center's Institute for Regenerative Medicine. That organization is leading a $24 million project funded by Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, Pacific (SSC Pacific), on behalf of Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). The goal is to develop a “body on a chip” that will be used to develop countermeasures to biological threats such as Sarin, Ricin, and the Ebola virus.

Writing in National Journal, Sophie Novack describes the project as “…so overloaded with sci-fiesque elements that if it were a movie, you might question the screenwriter's credibility.”

But there is no screenwriter for this project—just researchers who will build a miniaturized system of human organs to model the body's response to harmful agents and develop potential therapies.

“Miniature lab-engineered, organ-like hearts, lungs, livers and blood vessels—linked together with a circulating blood substitute—will be used both to predict the effects of chemical and biologic agents and to test the effectiveness of potential treatments,” said Anthony Atala, M.D., institute director and lead investigator on the project, last fall when the project was announced. “We are fortunate to have experts from around the country join us on this effort.”

“If successful, the platforms established under the eX Vivo Capabilities for Evaluation and Licensure (X.C.E.L.) program would significantly decrease the time and cost needed to develop medical countermeasures which would have a direct and positive effect on the ability of the United States government to respond to a chemical or biological attack,” added Dr. Clint Florence, acting branch chief of vaccines within the Translational Medical Division at DTRA. “A long-term goal of this research is to explore the potential for this technology to reduce the overall burden of in vivo testing in the development and management of products for human use by accurately predicting human safety, efficacy, and pharmacokinetics of candidate Medical Countermeasures (MCMs).”

The project employs micro-tissue engineering and microfluidics technologies to create tiny organ-like structures on a 2-inch chip along with fluid channels and sensors using a 3-D printer. The structures will mimic the function of the heart, liver, lung, and blood vessels.

Novack at National Journal quotes Sang Jin Lee, a coinvestigator on the project, as saying of the printer, “It's like with an inkjet printer, where you have different colors. Here we have different nozzles and different materials and cells.”

Wake Forest Baptist's 3-D printer is just one of the technologies to be applied in the program. In addition, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, will contribute micro- and nanoscale bioengineering devices for controlling cellular behavior; the University of Michigan will provide microscale models of the body and biomolecular devices and technologies for high-throughput drug testing; the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center will conduct chemical warfare agent research, development, engineering, and testing; Morgan State University will perform laboratory testing of cell cultures to identify the ideal blood surrogate; and The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health will provide toxicity testing and identification.

As Novack in National Journal put it, “The ultimate goal of bioprinting is to create large, functional, implantable organs that will address the growing gap between viable organ supply and demand for transplants.”

She writes that patients on transplant wait lists grow rapidly but the number of transplants hasn't. She quotes Atala as saying, “This is really what drives us to do this. Everything builds on the next step.”

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