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This 3D printer produces living cancer cells so scientists can test drugs on the real thing

Inventia Rastrum—a winner of Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards—uses the technology of an inkjet printer to create lifelike human cell structures so biologists can see how drugs work on real cells.

This 3D printer produces living cancer cells so scientists can test drugs on the real thing
[Photo: Inventia Life Science]

Since the invention of 3D printing, we’ve seen the possibilities for the technology widen, from printing household trinkets to entire houses. But in the lab, 3D printing has moved to a different level: “bioprinting,” the printing of three-dimensional living objects. Inventia Life Science is one of the companies at the forefront of this technology, creating living cells using the principles of inkjet printing. The potential is mind-boggling, but for now, Inventia has been focusing on pharmaceutical applications: printing cells for research into medical drug discovery.

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Inventia is the Australian company behind the Rastrum—the winner in the experimental category of Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards—a shiny, pink chrome box that prints new living cells. The process works something like this: cells are taken from a patient, and those cells are then cultivated and multiplied to produce a supply of “bio-inks.” Those are then placed into a cartridge, and loaded into the print head, the part of the printer that flies back and forth. The nozzles in the print head shoot tiny, microscopic droplets of the bio-inks onto a tissue culture plate. Layer by layer, those rapid-fire droplets construct the new cell culture model. Once the cells are produced, they can be incubated and used for various drug tests.

[Photo: Inventia Life Science]
The product wasn’t always this advanced. The 2015 prototype was “lovingly named the Frankenstein,” says Aidan O’Mahony, the company’s cofounder and CTO. It was O’Mahony’s cofounder, Brazilian engineer Julio Ribeiro, who came up with the idea as he was completing his philosophy doctorate in medicine at the University of New South Wales. In 2011, he met O’Mahony, a mechanical engineer who was developing high-speed inkjet printers. O’Mahony says Ribeiro, now the CEO, had “a crazy idea to develop a 3D bioprinter specifically for medical research for cell biologists,” as a way to accelerate their drug studies. In 2012, the pair started collaborating with UNSW, which helped develop the biomaterials and inks.

They also partnered with the UNSW’s Children’s Cancer Institute in Sydney, and that’s how the pharmaceutical application came to fruition. Researchers could print 3D cancer cells, in the same form and structure they’d hold in the bodies of their sick patients, and test drugs out on those cells. “What we’re doing is building cancer models for the scientists,” Ribeiro says. “We’re building tissues that represent the cancer that they are studying.

By applying a cancer drug to the printed cancer cells, it can test the drug much more thoroughly than in previous 2D-printed cells, which weren’t good models of what actually occurs in the human body (“because you don’t have any plastic surfaces in your body, hopefully,” O’Mahony jokes). The basic nature of the 2D model could have been giving false impressions of the drug effectiveness. That, in turn, would end up wasting millions of dollars for pharmaceutical companies if they don’t work further down the line—not to mention wasting the time of cancer patients who urgently need the right treatments.

The inkjet process is also different from the more common extrusion process, where biomaterials are squeezed out of nozzles in a paste-like substance and layered. That’s been crucial for its main application: tissue engineering those in need of replacements. But it’s a slower and less precise technique, the Inventia cofounders say, than what they hope the Rastrum will be able to do. The technology is faster: The eight nozzles can each eject 300 to 1,000 droplets per second, and those droplets can land precisely, even though the printhead is constantly flying and firing back and forth. As those eight nozzles fire the ink, they’re creating new biomaterials, just as colors combine on a paper printer to create new colors.

Eventually, Inventia does want to be able to engineer replacement tissues—and organs. That’s the “holy grail of bioprinting,” says to O’Mahony. And they believe their method will be the eventual key to tissue engineering, because of the precision, speed, and scale. “We will create a foundation for building tissues in the future much more sophisticated you can ever do it with extrusion,” Ribeiro says.

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[Photo: Inventia Life Science]

But for now, drug discovery is an ideal application for learning and improving the printer. Inventia has worked with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Center, a prestigious facility in Melbourne, which has been offering suggestions of ways to refine the machine and develop new applications. “The printer can produce 1,000 three-dimensional cell models in less than six hours,” says a press release from the center, “a task that would take more than 50 hours using current manual techniques.”

The Inventia team has also printed cardiac cells, kidney cells, and neural cells, and have partnered with a nationally recognized burn surgeon to help study printing replacement skin cells. Most recently, amid the coronavirus crisis, they are hoping to develop lung tissue models, with the eventual aim that scientists can grow the virus and lung cells in large quantities, and infect the lung cells to clearly understand how the disease works. Then, they can expose the virus to drugs as they develop, as an efficient means of testing. “There is an urgent need for multi-cellular in vitro microtissues in order to understand and assess treatments against this virus and fend off this global pandemic,” says Martin Engel, one of Inventia’s lead scientists, in a release.

Before the coronavirus, the company had plans to expand to the U.S. and Europe, after having already generated interest from medical researchers there. In the meantime, they are focusing on turning the desktop, stand-alone machine into a “throughput” version, for certain facilities that specialize in drug screening on larger scales. That next generation of the Rastrum would be part of a factory line where robots move the tissue plates from station to station.

“This is just the beginning of a new revolution in medical research,” Ribeiro says. “We’re just scratching the surface of what this tech can do.”

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