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How far away are we from implanting 3D-printed organs in our bodies?

Science fiction continues to merge with reality as 3D printing cuts deeper into the medical industry. What started out as a technology for creating simple dental implants is now evolving into printing skin tissue and entire organs. This has created hype around the possibilities, but it will still be some time before we see partially-3D-printed human beings, says an expert in the field.

JENS VINGE NYGAARD: Jens is Associate Professor of Biomechanics and Mechanobiology at Aarhus University. He started his academic career in Material Engineering and was one of the first researchers in the fields of 3D printed tissue implants. His current focus lies on mathematical models describing disease progression and implant performance.

What started out as a technology for creating simple dental implants is now evolving into printing skin tissue and entire organs.

In recent years, the science of artificial organs has taken an enormous leap. We have grown ears on mice and injected human cells into animals for growing organs. 3D printing technology fueled some of the most drastic academic breakthroughs by allowing researchers to print tissue, joints or even entire organs. It also shows how fast science has developed in the past 30 years. 3D printing was first used for simple medical purposes such as dental implants and custom prosthetics in the 90s. Now, Israeli scientists have created the first artificially printed heart by extracting stem cells from humans and using them as printing ink. Even though the heart doesn’t beat, the little organ is considered a great advance in the effort to find new treatments for organ diseases. The technology can make organ donation lists a thing of the past.

The team behind the scientific breakthrough stated in an interview with NBC that organ printers would find their way into hospitals within the next ten years. Professor James Yoo from the Wake Forest School of Medicine highlighted in the very same NBC article that there are still many questions and technical hurdles that need to be addressed. It is, for example, not clear if the printed structures will remain stable after implantation into the body or if it is possible to mimic complex organ processes.

So how far are we away from having 3D printed hearts beating in our chests? Accelerace met with Jens Vinge Nygaard, Associate Professor of Biomechanics at Aarhus University, to debunk the hype and understand the possibilities for 3D printing in the next few years. Jens Vinge Nygaard is a frontrunner in the research field and was already developing 3D-printed tissue implants in the early 2000s.

Does 3D bioprinting technology live up to the media hype it receives?
“I don’t think so. The news painted the picture that we are about to transplant the first hearts in humans in no time. But what has actually been implanted in humans so far are the most simple organs such as the bladder, which is basically just a balloon. It will take at least 30 to 40 years until we can print complex organs. Let’s look at the heart, for example. There are so many mechanisms in such an organ that have to be accounted for. Making sure that those mechanisms still work is not straight forward and clinical proof takes a lot of time.”

How can we see that it is here to stay?
“We can already 3D bioprint muscles or small tissue which can be used for testing medication. This is an area where 3D printing has its very own niche and has the potential to increase the success rate of medical trials.“

What was the major breakthrough in your eyes?
“Shaping complex structures outside the capability of traditional manufacturing. This started around 2012 where different materials have been combined and stem cells used for the implants. Also, we understand much more about the chemical characteristics of how 3D bio-printed implants function. For example, how the implants react with human tissue over time.”

Would you say that the impact of 3D printing on the medical industry is overrated?
“Access to 3D printing will boost medical development in general because they allow great opportunities to explore new design solutions, study the interface of materials or train surgeons. 3D printing is nowadays hyped but I’m sure it is here to stay.”

Which practical applications did this breakthrough lead to?
“Over the last 5 to 10 years, we started to see the first practical uses with hip implants, knee imitations and in dentistry. That’s already a success story but was solely focused on printing hard implants. The next wave of companies are now looking into the particular regeneration of bone and tissue such as Particle3D who promise faster bone healing and skin recovery of burnt areas.”

Where will 3D technology be in ten years? In every hospital to allow on-demand printing of organs we need?
“I would sincerely hope that startups like Particle3D have success with their implant technology and that we see them as rock solid companies in the industry. Then I would like to see new companies that start to push forward the making of more advanced organs like small lymph nodes and parts of the ear or eye. It would be very valuable to take that small step to more advanced tissues. I don’t think it would be realistic to expect any more.”

Get a new jaw straight out of the printer

3D bone printing is seen as having great promise for the medical field. It has the potential to not only create customized bone implants but also fight rising healthcare costs. The Accelerace alumnus Particle3D is one of the promising ventures in this field. They aim to revolutionize cancer treatments with their printed bones.

Back in 2015, the two bachelor students Casper Slots and Martin Bonde Jensen from the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) heard about the possibilities of 3D printing for medical use. They decided to write their thesis with Associate Professor Morten Østergaard Andersen and the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery of Odense University Hospital. The goal was clear: to create a 3D-printed implant solution for replacing destroyed or surgically removed bones in the face. A solution which was far better than existing practices in terms of customization, precision and healing.

The three founded Particle3D and embarked on an ambitious journey. Today, the company is developing 3D-printed bones consisting of calcium phosphate. for people who need reconstructive bone surgery due to cancer treatment, birth defects or traumas. Cancer, for example, often requires reconstruction of bone parts which have been destroyed or surgically removed. Existing treatments include synthetic implants consisting of metal or polymers, donor bones or harvesting bone fragments from the patient’s own body to replace the missing bone. But none of them are optimal. They usually have a high complication rate and are either one size fits all or graft cuts from hips or thighs.

3D bone printing technology is seen as having great promise for the medical field because it combines rapid prototyping technology to produce a scaffold of the desired shape with incorporating living cell types that form the bone tissue once implanted. Moreover, the existing market for bioprinting bones and tissue is growing and is predicted to be worth $2.2bn by 2024, according to Global Market Insights.

Timeline

Dec 2014
Casper, Martin and Morten started the project

Oct 2015
First patent filed

June 2017
Venture Cup National Winner

Aug 2017
Founded Particle3D (IVS)

Aug 2017
Accepted into Accelerace

Aug 2018
First investment round ($800.000)

2018-2019
Clinical test on animals (pigs)

2021
Human clinical trial

To print a jaw takes about four hours. To print a full human skull takes about approximately 20 hours.

Dissolvable bones out of the printer

It took some time to get from thesis to the company Particle3D. Even though in recent years there have been great leaps in the science of making artificial human parts and organs, research was still in its infancy when the two students started experimenting with their university 3D printers. The research process was quite iterative. It included mixing calcium phosphate with exotic materials such as fish oil or fat.

The team succeeded in finding the right recipe; a mix of calcium phosphate and a fatty acid which allows for easy extrusion out of a nozzle to create the shape of a bone. The implants are then fired at 1100 degrees, which burns away the fatty acid leaving a sintered shape of calcium phosphate that mimics the human bone so well it becomes a part of the body and eventually dissolves. When keeping the fatty acid in the implant instead, the implant can also be combined with antibiotics making it possible to locally inhibit an area thereby cutting the amount of antibiotics needed by a tenth. To print a jaw takes about four hours. To print a full human skull takes about approximately 20 hours.

Relying on 3D printing has another advantage of being fast and able to create individualized implants. The startup can provide 3D-printed bone implants for facial reconstruction of destructed bone tissue in no time. The only thing they need is a CT scan and a couple of hours for printing.

Particle3D’s method found great interest in the academic and commercial side. The students got hired by the university to develop their business and transform it into a real startup. Being part of Accelerace in 2017 gave them great public awareness and helped Particle3D secure their first investment round of 800.000 USD. Today, Particle3D is currently finishing their animal testing in pigs to test efficacy and safety. Hopefully, they can soon ramp up human clinical testing – bringing them one step closer to printing their own success story. Layer by layer.

Particle3D implants deliver the ‘bricks’ for re-growing bone tissue and convert it into real living bone over time,

Martin Bonde Jensen

Facts

The first product from Particle3D is an implant of purely calcium phosphate. A fatty acid is used in the printing process.

Since fatty acids are natural to the human body, the next generation of implants will still have the fatty acid once implanted. It will function as a matrix for storing medicine that can be released over time and thereby locally inhibit an area to cut down on the systemic use of, for example, antibiotics.

To print a full human jaw takes around 4 hours. A skull will take about 20-25 hours to print and demands a bigger production setup.

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