There has been a lot of hype recently about the possible applications of 3D bio-printers. And rightfully so. The prospect of being able to print new kidneys for the ten’s of thousands of people on the donor list is a game-changer for the medical community. But, we are still in the early stages of what can be possible with this technology. Now there is a new printer it town that hopes to do for today’s large, complex 3D bio-printers, what xerox did for paper printing – put 3D bioprinting on the desk of every bio researcher.
BioBots is a U.S. biotech that was started in 2014 when Danny Gabrera and his co-founders saw 2 major failings in the current marketplace. First, was that existing 3D bioprinters were expensive, costing upwards of $100,000. The second was the they were incredibly complex to operate and required highly trained technicians to print the most basic tissues. Their new system combines hardware, software and wetware in a cheap package that easily sits on a desk.
“Our idea was we can use the same approaches that were used in the maker movement to build smaller and cheaper devices in biotech,” says Cabrera. “When we looked at what was out there we found devices that existed were huge — they looked like old mainframe computers, they took up entire rooms, they cost half a million dollars and were really difficult to operate. You needed technicians to operate them.”
The startup’s major innovation is in the wetware that is use to print the living tissue. Rather than use complex system of mixtures to print with, their system opted for a single cartridge similar to that of a refillable inkjet printer. Their prepackaged, three-powder mixture is simply mixed with a hardening agent and then with whatever living cells that the operator wishes to use. 5-10 minutes later, you are ready to go.
Once the organ is printed, the tissue is hardened with visible blue light. Most 3D printers use ultraviolet light to harden their scaffolds, which can damage or destroy the living cells they were just printed. This new innovation protects the cells, allowing them time to set and form a healthier tissue.
The printer is still not able to construct complex organs that are intended to be transplanted into humans, nor is it intended to do so just yet. The first market they hope to grow into is to print organs and tissues for testing by researchers in the pharmaceutical industry.
The goal is to make 3D printing cost-effective enough to replace animal testing and allow for testing of human tissues in jurisdictions where animal testing is prohibited. By printing a complete heart from human cells rather than just a 2D tray of heart tissue, researchers are able to get a better picture of the effectiveness of their treatments during testing.
“We really see it as a product for pharmaceutical companies right now, for companies that are doing clinical drug testing,” Gabrera reported to TechCrunch. “You can use these devices to build 3D living tissue models using human cells, and you can use those models which are way more complex than 2D tissues or animals. They really recapitulate the function of the body. And you can use them to develop compounds for clinical settings. And catch the false positives before they get to clinical trials.”
BioBots is currently selling their desktop devices for $5000 to labs and researchers who are willing to help work out the kinks in design and perfect their model. The second-generation version is currently available for pre-order at the still low price of $25,000.
Going forward, they plan to develop a recurring business model similar to traditional printing companies like HP, where they will sell different kinds of inks that can be used to print anything from bone and cartilage to liver and brain tissues. A single cartridge will sell for $700 and have a shelf life of about 1 month.