Sure, 3-D printers can crank out prototypes of small industrial parts, even take a shot at producing ornamental jewelry. Heck, we recently wrote about the Cornucopia project coming out of the MIT Media Lab that explores the use of 3-D printing technology as a means of preparing food. But even that potential use of 3-D printing doesn’t quite prepare you for what’s next–using 3-D printers as a means of creating human tissue and organs.
Invetech this week announced delivery of the first production model 3-D bio-printer to Organovo, inventor of the proprietary NovoGen bioprinting technology, which in turn is exploring how to leverage the products to work on different types of tissue construction.
Here’s how Keith Murphy, CEO of Organovo, explains it: “Scientists and engineers can use the 3-D bio printers to enable placing cells of almost any type into a desired pattern in 3D,” said Murphy in a press release. “Researchers can place liver cells on a preformed scaffold, support kidney cells with a co-printed scaffold or form adjacent layers of epithelial and stromal soft tissue that grow into a mature tooth. Ultimately, the idea would be for surgeons to have tissue on demand for various uses, and the best way to do that is get a number of bio-printers into the hands of researchers and give them the ability to make three dimensional tissues on demand.”
The 3D bio-printers include a software interface that allows engineers to build a model of the tissue construct before the printer begins the physical, cell-by-cell construction of the organs using automated, laser-calibrated print heads.
The printer, built by Invetech, fits insides a standard biosafety cabinet for sterile use and includes two print heads–one for placing human cells and the other for placing a hydrogel, scaffold or support matrix. One of the most complex challenges in the development of the printer was being able to repeatedly position the capillary tip, attached to the print head, to within microns. This was essential to ensure that the cells are placed in exactly the right position, and Invetech developed a computer controlled, laser-based calibration system to achieve the required repeatability.
Invetech plans to ship a number of 3-D bio-printers to Organovo during 2010 and 2011; for its part, Organovo will be placing the printers globally with researchers.