Advances in Biofabrication: 3D Printing Stem Cells

Bioprinting is one of the most exciting areas of research and development in the realm of biotechnology because of its potential for major impact in the field of medicine. Stem cells have been a key target of recent advances in 3D bioprinting, and one I’ve been particularly interested in watching because of their applicability to a broad range of problems. Stem cells have myriad applications in regenerative medicine, tissue replacement, healthcare diagnostics, therapeutics, drug screening and more. In addition to these medical uses, a readily available supply of stem cells is needed for the future development of bio inks, organs-on-a-chip, and bioprinting as a whole, according to Dr. Tolou Shokufar, PhD. Associate Professor of Bioengineering at University of Illinois, Chicago, who specializes in bioprinting for regenerative medicine and toxicology studies.

What are the benefits of 3D printing pluripotent cells over other production methods? Stem cells are difficult to produce in other ways — a 2015 study by a team of scientists from Tsingua University in China and Drexel University in Philadelphia explains that more common methods of stem cell production in the laboratory have significant limitations in terms of efficiency, control, reproducibility, throughput, cost, and market availability of required equipment. This team, led by Dr. Wei Sun, achieved a major breakthrough in stem cell production methods by demonstrating, for the first time, a highly reproducible 3D bioprinting technique capable of reliably and precisely producing stem cells in high volumes.

Building on this momentum, this week two Israeli companies announced a collaboration leveraging Nano Dimension’s capabilities in the 3D printing of precise electronic circuitry, and Accellta’s expertise in biotechnology and cell bioreactors. This new collaboration has already produced a successful proof of concept that moves stem cell 3D printing one step closer to productization. The two companies co-designed a 3D bioprinter capable of making stem cells at high resolution and in high volumes. The stem cells that are output from the bioprinter are then deposited into an advanced suspension-based cell curing system that keeps the cells healthy. Based on these promising results, the two companies plan to raise funds for a potential spinout entity to commercialize this new technology, which if successful could provide a revolutionary solution to a big problem for stem cell researchers.

Fundamental 3D Printing Principles Apply:

In the 3D printing classic Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing co-authors Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman have defined a number of 3D printing principles that highlight the technology’s benefits over traditional manufacturing methods. Several of them apply to the case 3D printing stem cells.

1. No assembly required: 3D bioprinting stem cells produces a finished “product” that does not require additional action on the part of researchers or medical technicians once the process has been put into motion.

2. Zero (or low) lead time: Dr. Sun’s study found that 7 days is the best length of time to culture the live embryonic stem cells after the 3D construct is printed — just enough time to let the maximum number of cells fully form, but not so long that too many die off. Future improvements in printing technique and bioreactor culture may cut this time down even further. A weeklong lead time for healthy stem cells is a huge improvement over relying on the egg donation process, which, in addition to being time-consuming, is invasive and carries potential health risks for donors.

3. Infinite shades of materials: Typically, the benefits of 3D printing over traditional manufacturing processes is that a variety of materials that can be cleverly combined and layered to useful effect. HP’s recently announced Jet Fusion 3D Printer is at the cutting edge of this technique thanks to its ability to transform properties at the voxel level — a stunning achievement that has been predicted in the 3D printing community for years, but was not possible until now. In the case 3D bioprinting stem cells, the significance of the range of materials takes on quite a different meaning: embryonic stem cells are by their nature pluripotent and have the potential to differentiate into almost any cell in the body.

4. A fundamentally unique method of production: This is a principle of 3D printing that is not mentioned by Fabricated authors Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman, but is often hailed by experts like Zach Schildhorn, a VC that invests in the 3D printing space, and Nikki Kauffman, founder and CEO of 3D printing startup Normal. 3D printing is best leveraged to create products that simply could not be made any other way, such as the individually customized ear buds Normal 3D prints for its customers by the thousands. In the case of stem cells, the production capabilities of 3D printing are unique in their speed, efficacy, and crucially, reliability. In addition to these benefits, this safe laboratory process does not carry the ethical quandaries associated with harvesting stem cells from human embryos and causing donors pain or discomfort, and potential future health risks.

What are the most exciting developments in biofabrication that you’ve seen? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.