Printing the New You: The Amazing Potential of Biofabrication Research in South Carolina
Last year, some five thousand people in the U.S. died while waiting for a kidney transplant. They weren’t the lucky ones—there was no lifesaving organ, at the last minute, coming to save them.
Now imagine that we could save all of those lives, and more, by finding a vast new source of kidneys and other organs—namely, growing them from a person’s own cells. It’s actually a lot less farfetched than it sounds: Army researchers have used a modified inkjet printer to print new skin cells to treat severe burns. Tissue engineering has already been used to rebuild a 10 year old British child’s trachea by growing a new one from his own stem cells. Both involved laying down a relatively flat layer of human cells, but constructing three dimensional masses of cells is also happening. This is a new scientific and medical frontier that’s right now opening before our eyes.
Here in South Carolina, we’re taking a lead in this amazing field, sometimes called biofabrication. The state recently received a five year, $ 20 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR program (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) to dive into the basic science that will someday lead to real cures in this area. And here’s the bonus: Although the science needed to rebuild your body isn’t there yet, we’ll generate a large range of new insights—and, perhaps, new jobs and industries—along the way.
Our approach to biofabrication is a collaborative one across many fields, because figuring out how to print living tissue outside of your body is a stunningly complex endeavor. How do you keep it alive? How do you ensure that there is blood flow within the tissue? What you’re really talking about here is building a mass of cells that work together seamlessly, just as they do in our bodies. So not only do you need precision design; you also need a mastery of cellular signaling—how different cells communicate—and of the behavior of proteins in what is called the “extracellular matrix”—the structure in which cells are embedded.
In our case, the key scientific focus is on using bioprinters to lay down “spheroids,” or masses of approximately 10,000 cells each, and try to get them to grow and work together. That’s a lot of cells, and no, at this point we cannot use them to regrow your heart. But here’s the thing: Doing the basic science to get there, over the next few decades, will have enormous repercussions because it will drive scientific and technological innovation. The engineering challenges involved in pulling this off—the need to generate sophisticated computer programs to model what we’re doing, better bioprinting technologies, and much more–will lead to new patents, new technologies, new companies.
And of course, there are many intermediate stages along the path to our goal. For instance, consider the possibility of printing masses of cells that can be used in the testing of drugs by the pharmaceutical industry—or, in research on cosmetics. L’Oreal, for instance, is very interested in tissue engineering because it holds the potential to do away with any need for controversial animal testing. So along the way towards realizing the massive medical potential of this research, there will be many stopping points that also have concrete benefits.
Right now, we can’t print replacement kidneys from a patient’s stem cells, and we can’t take the patient off dialysis. But this goal is a lot less unbelievable than it sounds–and taking up the challenge will have immense benefits along the way anyway. In fact, they’re already happening. Welcome to the future.
Thanks to Scott Little of South Carolina EPSCoR for help with this post.