“Simple” probably isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind when thinking about 3D bioprinting. Complex, hi-tech, futuristic maybe, but in a recent conversation with 3D printing company FELIXprinters and Technical University of Denmark (DTU) about a new device that’s being hailed as the “ultimate bio research instrument in a cost-effective package,” you’d think it was a piece of cake.
“I try to keep it simple,” says Hakan Gürbüz, an Industrial PhD researcher at DTU, during a recent Skype call where he likened the materials used in the 3D bioprinting process to those you might readily find in your baking cupboard. The technology, packaged inside FELIXprinters new BIOprinter, uses gelatine as a material for cell spreading whereby special bioinks are deposited to create tissue-like scaffolds, in a similar way to conventional layer-by-layer printing. It sounds straightforward enough – in bioprinting terms at least – but making that process easy was in fact the hardest part.
The machine is the Dutch additive manufacturing company’s first detour away from polymer extrusion-based printing, which recently expanded to high-temperature printing, but maintains the same architecture popularised by its machines since 2010. Unique to the BIOprinter, however, are dual sterilisable print heads equipped with syringes to deposit two different bioinks simultaneously, an adapted build area with heating and cooling functionality to accommodate standardised petri-dishes and culture plates, and a UV curing module to enable printing with curable viscous materials. These features, designed specifically for the printing of scalable and perfusable hybrid scaffold structures, aim to bring an accessible, easy-to-use, cost-effective bioprinting option to the market.
“It seems simple, but it was a lot of work to actually make it work properly and easy to use,” Guillaume Feliksdal, Managing Director at FELIXprinters tells TCT, explaining how the machine is “relatively similar to a regular printer.” The process is indeed familiar; you load your printing material, in this case bioink, into standardised five millilitre syringes, prepare your file using ordinary slicing software, and you’re ready to go.
The machine was developed in collaboration with DTU and training4crm with funding from the European Union Horizon 2020 Programme with the overall deliverable of bringing an affordable and easy-to-use 3D bioprinter to market. Specifically, the machine is a micro-extrusion bioprinter which dispenses high viscosity materials such as hydrogels, biocompatible copolymers, and cell spheroids in a continuous string using motorised extrusion to enable better controllability of the flow.
The BIOprinter was first announced last autumn following three years of collaboration. Having launched commercially in March, the timing, Feliksdal admits, hasn’t been the most optimal given the machine landed as many countries commenced lockdowns due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but there are already a handful of universities and researchers using it.
One of those is Gürbüz, whose research at DTU’s Department of Biotechnology and Biomedicine is focused on 3D printing of hybrid 3D scaffolds and biomaterials. Gürbüz has been working with FELIXprinters on the development of the BIOprinter and also on an academic level for his PhD thesis. His work is centred on developing a treatment for Parkinson’s disease by producing neural implants which release dopamine into the patient’s brain. The printer is used to produce disease models which mimic the disease for early stage research and testing of treatments.
“The scaffold enables you to create an array of cells, which you can then perform research and certain tests on,” Feliksdal explains. “They [researchers] used to make scaffolds in a very elaborate way and with a 3D bioprinter, they can directly print the scaffold as is which saves a lot of time and also money. That’s one research application.”
Other advanced applications, Feliksdal elaborates, could include printing medicines, bone structures which can be cultured with cells and then implanted, or for skin tissue engineering for the testing of cosmetics as an alternative to animal testing.
Academic environments and research labs, those without access to huge budgets to acquire current 3D bioprinting equipment, and users that may not have expertise in 3D printing are where FELIXprinters believes its BIOprinter could have a real impact. It has been designed to deliver the same accessibility and upgradeability as the company’s FELIX Pro series which means the machine can be adapted to future applications with the change of a printhead. It’s also an open system meaning researchers can use their choice of standard consumables. Feliksdal explained how the company put extensive effort into making the machine user friendly, particularly for educational environments where it could act as a stepping stone to more advanced bioprinting activity. The very nature of those academic settings, which sees a constant turnaround of new students and researchers coming through and needing to be trained up, also makes that ease of use all the more appealing. Then there’s the price which is positioned significantly lower than most high-end 3D bioprinting options. FELIXprinters says customers can contact for a quote on the website but Feliksdal comments, “You can have, let’s say, 10 bioprinters for the price of one.”
“We believe it’s a sweet spot,” says Feliksdal of its current user base. “But what I’ve heard from several people is that the goal is to bring this technology as soon as possible to the clinics. So, right now it’s more focused on research but it would be nice if a pharmacy had a bioprinter which can print medicine directly or in a hospital where they can print an array of skin cells when somebody [has] burned their skin or bone implants, for instance.”
Additively manufacturing supercar parts and next-generation jet engines may no longer surprise the average AM enthusiast but the idea that we will one day be able to use additive technologies to create living organs, feels like the part that’s still science fiction. And yet, last year researchers at Carnegie Mellon University published a paper detailing “critical steps” on the path to 3D printing a functional adult-sized human heart, while back in February, ceramic 3D printed manifolds for a tissue conditioning system underwent testing aboard the International Space Station. In fact, according to market forecasts, the global 3D bioprinting market is expected to grow at a CAGR of over 20% by the mid 2020s as healthcare demands rise and alternatives are sought for clinical trials.
Feliksdal says that while the BIOprinter’s application scope is currently not as advanced as some high-cost bioprinting machines currently on the market, the company is “already to the roadmap to go to the clinic.” He also points to the possibility of future-facing applications such as small 3D organoids, a simplified replica of an organ which can be used to simulate micro-anatomy for medical research.
“The goal is to now get involved and grow into this new niche and see where it goes from there,” Feliksdal concludes. “We try to get, as much as possible, a lot of collaborations with research labs, universities to get more of a feel for what is necessary for bioprinting and also where they are heading in this industry. So far, we’ve spoken to several. They say ‘okay, it’s cool that we can now do a lot of tests with this BIOprinter but it will be even more cool if we can actually use it in real life.’”