Like many countries in the world, Singapore faces a severe shortage of donated organs, which can be successfully transplanted into patients. It is no surprise then that there is a long waiting list of patients for transplantable organs, especially kidneys and livers.
One of the ways in which scientists are trying to solve the problem of organ shortages is by exploring ways to 3D print human tissues and organs. Dr Cyrus Beh, a Senior Research Fellow at A*STAR’s Molecular Engineering Lab (MEL) is leading the efforts in Singapore to solve the organ shortage problem by exploring faster printing of the cells and tissues.
“There has been an exponential growth in the use of 3D printing in medicine as it shows promise for creating complex composite [biological] tissue constructs,” says Dr Beh, quoting a paper published by the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
The process of bio-printing or printing of biological material from the cells taken from the patients themselves, is a complex one. In this process, cells are placed within a soft gel material to be assembled layer-by-layer. Ultimately, with this process, a part or full human organ can be created and assembled.
Currently, tissues and organs that have been successfully printed and transplanted back into the patients are either flat, such as skin, tubular, such as blood vessels; or hollow, such as the bladder. More complex structures, which fully take advantage of the capabilities of 3D printers, are still being developed.
Taking a stride forward in complex printing is the Eclipse 3D Printer developed by MEL that prints complex structures. It is probably one of the first printers to accomplish such highly intricate geometry with soft gel materials.
There are still many challenges that scientists from MEL are tackling to ensure that 3D printed organs can be successfully transplanted. The first is to ensure that they are accepted and tolerated well by the body.
“Usually, a patient’s own cells are used to create the artificial organ for transplant, thereby preventing rejection of the organ,” explains Dr Beh. “However, the challenge is that when organs are being created, or 3D printed, the process has to be fast enough so that the cells and tissue structures do not die before the printing is completed. The challenge is to speed up the tissue and organ printing process, to make sure that cell or tissue mortality is low. ”
Bringing Engineering in as a Solution
The approach of Singapore scientists in dealing with the challenge of cell mortality is to achieve faster printing by bringing about an engineering-based solution. That was the genesis of developing the Eclipse 3D Printer.
The aim of the researchers at MEL has been to enable fast printing of structures containing cells that can mature into living tissues. Dr Beh explains, “If this is achieved, then complex structures using layered materials will be produced faster and have a higher chance of success.” Increasing the printing speed will also help to increase the supply of organs, and lower the costs to the health care system, both directly and indirectly.
Dr Hoon, a Research Scientist who works with Dr Beh, adds, “To explain in simple terms about what we are trying to achieve, it would be safe to say that we are trying to help patients to regenerate or treat their diseased organs by using the cells or tissues from their own body. We are aiming to 3D print organs at an increased speed so they have a better survival rate.”
Changing Human Healthcare with Faster 3D Printing
While scientists at MEL are developing this technology, they are excited about the vast implications and changes it is likely to usher in. Some future possibilities are:
- Helping Human Healing
The first use of the faster bio-printing technology could be to help ailing human tissues heal themselves. “For instance, we could print structures for the cells from the patient to help the body to naturally heal a torn cartilage,” Dr Beh elaborates.
- Building Human Organs for Clinical Trials
With successful bio-printing of human organs, the clinical trials of new drugs can be done on human organs created in a lab. With this, research scientists will also be able to get a better idea of drug response and success. “The possibilities are limitless in clinical research. Such changes will also help us reduce the time-to-market of a drug,” offers Dr Hoon.
- Replacing Human Organs
The ultimate aim of the scientists from MEL is to create a sustainable source of human organs that can be transplanted safely into ailing patients. “While the assembly of these tissues into complex organs, such as kidneys and livers, may still be one to two decades away, the method developed here will serve as an enabling technology to accelerate progress in this field,” says Dr Beh.
Dr Cyrus Beh
Dr Cyrus Beh is a Senior Research Fellow in the Molecular Engineering Lab. Having graduated from the Department of Biomedical Engineering in Johns Hopkins University in 2014, he returned to Singapore, and has been involved in numerous projects, including fluorescence detection of food contaminants and bioinspired sensor technologies. He recently developed a 3D bioprinter that is capable of rapidly fabricating structures of complex geometry out of protein and synthetic hydrogels, which are suitable for serving as scaffolds for cells, and can be utilized in regenerative medicine applications.
Dr Shawn Hoon
Dr Shawn Hoon is a Research Scientist at the Molecular Engineering Laboratory. He graduated from Stanford University and was a founding member of the lab. Over the years, he has worked on a range of projects from biomaterial discovery and development to developing high throughout genomic assays.