Unraveling the vast potential of 3D printing amid covid-19

October 6, 2020
Sophia Ononye-Onyia.

Millions of lives continue to be impaired each year due to organ shortages. Traditional organ donations for transplants are limited by supply and inadequate medical infrastructure. Yet even as we battle with the covid-19 pandemic, chronic diseases such as coronary artery disease are still a significant health burden. Moreover, as life expectancy continues to rise, there is a need for an alternative, sustainable source of vital organs such as human hearts. 3D printing, which is also known as additive manufacturing, will play a life-saving role in reducing organ shortage and transforming the growing field of regenerative medicine. Therefore, although much of the scientific innovation in 2020 are focused on covid-19—and rightfully so—the goal of this article is to explore how 3D printing is revolutionizing the way we manage both infectious and chronic diseases.

Vital tissue and organ printing. 3D bioprinting of vital tissues and organs involves dispensing cells onto a biocompatible scaffold that is used to create tissue-like three-dimensional structures via a consecutive layer-by-layer technique.

This intricate process is perhaps best demonstrated by the collaboration between Israeli-based CollPlant Biotechnologies and key strategic partners, 3D Systems and United Therapeutics. Through its recombinant human collagen (rhCollagen) platform technology, CollPlant develops the bioink, which is the material used to produce engineered live tissue. CollPlant’s rhCollagen is identical to the type 1 collagen produced by the human body, which makes it an optimal building block for regenerative medicine. 3D Systems, the leading additive manufacturing printing solutions company, is assisting CollPlant with the development of tissue and scaffold bioprinting processes for third-party collaborators. United Therapeutics is supporting the development of 3D-printed lung scaffolds with the potential to expand to additional organs based on terms of their global licensing and commercialization agreement with CollPlant.

Furthermore, academic institutions such as the University of Minnesota and Israel’s Tel Aviv University have developed bioinks that are capable of being used to create a fully functional 3D-printed human heart. While many still struggle with the feasibility of this concept, the truth of the matter is that 3D printing of vital tissues and organs will be pivotal in reducing organ shortage. One can only hope that in the next decade or so, we may get to the point where we have a better grasp on some of the current challenges with 3D bioprinting such as vascularization. For example, currently available 3D-printed hearts would need to form a pumping ability and also contract in order to be considered fully functional. Collaborations between key stakeholders inclusive of the biotechnology industry and hospital systems will also be important in advancing the state of the science, which will hopefully reduce global organ shortages.

Reduction of health disparities. Data from the World Health Organization Global Observatory on Donation and Transplantation indicate that more than 130,000 solid organ transplants are performed worldwide, but this is representative of less than 10% of the global need. Additionally, peer-reviewed scientific publications suggest that organ impairments are economically burdensome to the health-care systems, while exacerbating global and national health disparities. Consequently, the application of 3D printing in regenerative medicine may be life-saving and less financially burdensome for the millions of patients all over the world who are in dire need of organ donations.

Drug discovery. Most pharmaceutical research laboratories leverage living animals or animal models to determine if a drug works in a similar way inside an organism as it did in the artificial setting of a laboratory. Animal studies also enable researchers to evaluate how the drug effects the interactions between different cells and organs of the body.  However, animal testing has become fairly controversial due to concerns about animal cruelty and its contribution to overall inefficiencies in the drug discovery process. Of note, traditional drug discovery typically takes an average of 10 to 14 years and regulatory bodies such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are revising policies to expedite drug approvals particularly amid covid-19. Consequently, emerging technologies such as 3D bioprinting may potentially serve as an alternative to what many may consider to be antiquated animal models. An area where 3D bioprinting holds promise as a drug discovery tool is in infectious disease research. While theoretically this idea holds promise, data is scarce possibly due to the nascent nature of the technology. Yet, collectively, we can keep a close eye on additional research updates from companies such as Viscient Biosciences, which is creating 3D human lung tissue to test potential covid-19 therapies.

Medical device development. Excitingly, the FDA recently announced its partnership with the National Institutes of Health, Veterans Affairs and America Makes that leverages 3D printing “to address devices shortages including personal protective equipment.” This initiative has resulted in the targeted delivery of more than 200,000 3D-printed face shields and 3D-printed face masks, respectively, to health-care providers. Additionally, Italian 3D-printing company WASP has developed an open-source process for personalized 3D-printed face masks with a replaceable filter that provide an ergonomic fit. These 3D face masks are enabled by the mass customization capability of 3D printing combined with the innovative use of 3D face scanning. Taken together, 3D printing can help reduce some of the logistical challenges amid covid-19 via real-time, reliable manufacturing of materials and devices that are needed for the provision of essential health services.

Food technology. Back in October 2017, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Yissum Research Development Company developed a platform that would enable the “3D printing of personally tailored food.” This food technology is based on edible calorie-free, nano-cellulose fiber and was pioneered by one of Israel’s premier scientists, Professor Oded Shoseyov. In fact, many consider Israel to be the birthplace of innovation in 3D printing. In May 2020, KFC garnered mainstream attention for this novel technology when the global fast-food chicken restaurant chain announced that it would leverage 3D printing for production of its chicken nuggets. The implication is substantial for this global brand with over 24,000 restaurants in 145 countries. Furthermore, the company stated that it would be “receiving a final product for testing [that] is already planned for the fall of 2020 in Moscow” with the potential to extend to other parts of the world, including the United States.

In conclusion, it appears that we are yet to fully understand and utilize the vast potential of 3D printing. But as covid-19 continues to wreak havoc on the global economy, drug access, and food supplies, we must remain open to emerging technologies like 3D bioprinting that may simultaneously improve life spans and quality of life.

Sophia Ononye-Onyia is a Yale-trained molecular oncologist and founder and CEO of The Sophia Consulting Firm, a New York life-sciences marketing and communications consultancy. She is also the host of her firm’s Amplifying Scientific Innovation Podcast.