Printed human skin sounded like some kind of sci-fi fantasy when the idea first emerged a decade ago. Now, like so many futuristic ideas that have come to fruition, bioprinting is not only here but it’s become cheaper, faster, and smaller. It may soon be ready for mainstream use.
PrintAlive is a compact bioprinter, about the size of a hardcover book, that can print synthetic skin much more quickly and affordably than any other competing device on the market. Designed by PhD students at the University of Toronto, it recently won the 2014 James Dyson Award.
PrintAlive uses a patient’s own skin cells to produce a skin-like material–complete with hair follicles and sweat glands–without them having to endure the painful process of having skin grafted from another part of the body. In addition to minimizing pain for patients, the device also promises to reduce another critical metric for burn victims and others in need of new skin: speed.
“The write speed of our bioprinter is between 10x to 100x higher than the commercial counterparts,” says Alex Guenther, the University of Toronto professor who oversaw the development of PrintAlive.
The device is still limited to academic research usage, but by the time it’s ready for a commercial release, PrintAlive will be competing against several incumbents. Organovo, EnvisionTEC, and RegenHu have been working on bringing the rapid prototyping revolution to human flesh for years. And the U.S. military is aggressively testing its own bioprinting devices for battlefield skin grafts and other regenerative medical applications.
Yet there are several features that make PrintAlive stand out from its competition. In addition to being significantly faster, smaller, and cheaper than existing bioprinters, it’s also mechanically more efficient.
“Our printer does not require a motorized stage,” says Guenther. “In fact, it does not possess any moving parts, except for the printed tissue that is collected on a rotating drum. Only the bio-ink moves by controllably flowing within a proprietary printer cartridge.”
Borrowing from the model of desktop printers, those cartridges are going to be the key to how PrintAlive makes money. Guenther thinks that the company will be able to charge between $10,000 and $20,000 for the printer itself (existing options are as much as $250,000) and drive revenue the old-fashioned way: By charging around $150,000 for the cartridges.
PrintAlive will also be more mobile than existing bioprinters, another crucial detail for a device that could be used in medical emergencies, especially in developing countries. The device takes up about as much space as a hardcover book, Guenther says, compared to commercial bioprinters that tend to be the size of microwave ovens, if not bigger.
The long-term vision for those dabbling in bioprinting is as universal as it is sci-fi-sounding: The goal is to print entire organs. In time, there’s little reason to doubt that the technology will enable doctors to fabricate new livers, lungs, or even hearts out of synthetic flesh. But that’s not what PrintAlive or established bioprinting startups are promising just yet.
Most bioprinting efforts are still focused on giving pharmaceutical companies a viable way to test drugs without relying on the traditional, yet imperfect method of testing them on animals. Since these devices print human cells, the results can be much more accurate than those derived using members of a different species, such as mice. Organovo has already succeeded in mimicking cancer networks using 3-D printed biomaterials. Later this year, the company is expected to release a printable liver tissue for drug testing and other medical research.
Similarly, PrintAlive is already being used in two academic research labs to test drugs. Before the end of the year, Guenther expects to have the printer set up inside pharmaceutical companies to test its viability for drug testing purposes in the private sector.
So what about printing skin? The team behind PrintAlive has succeeded in grafting its synthetic skin onto a mouse. The next step is to churn out a fleshy new coating for a pig and eventually, people. “In terms of clinical applications more research is needed on our end,” says Guenther.
Unlike pharmaceutical testing, which is fairly straightforward from a regulatory standpoint, actually printing human flesh in a clinical setting is going to need government approval. That fact, combined with the additional R&D needed to perfect the process, means we’re probably a few years away from seeing 3-D printed skin grafts in the wild.