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Tech vs. COVID-19: 3D Bioprinting Human Tissue for Testing COVID-19 Therapies

Some mad scientist 3D printing a spine

Over the last several years, 3D printing innovations have sparked great enthusiasm and interest. This is particularly relevant to evolving space pursuits that plan to use these technologies in the future. But more pressing needs are currently present on a global scale with innovative COVID-19 therapies in demand. As hundreds of millions become infected with the virus, investigations for treatments and vaccines are hurrying to find solutions. And technologies like 3D bioprinting may play a significant role in these pursuits.

3D bioprinting offers a unique approach in exploring COVID-19 therapies. Rather than having to study petri dishes or lab mice, actual human tissues can be used. This has notable advantages for investigating the effectiveness of possible treatments for those infected. Likewise, this approach may also provide insights that could guide better vaccines. Despite the fact that 3D bioprinting has some limitations still, researchers are bullish on its potential to help. If used effectively, it might just usher in 3D therapies much sooner than expected.

“We work a lot with researchers, pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies, and we are trying to seed advances as quickly as possible, analyze data and develop new drugs. This [3D bioprinting project] is the most exciting project I’ve worked on in a long time.” – Rebecca Laborde, Master Principle Scientists, Oracle

What Is 3D Bioprinting?

When it comes to 3D bioprinting, the main difference involves the types of materials used. Most 3D printing models use some type of scaffolding or structure upon which the printing occurs. For creating human tissues, this involves biodegradable scaffolding that contains microscopic channels. These channels contain nutrients that can then serve to nourish the printed human cells. In essence, this provides a basic template upon which the human tissue can grow.

Someone has 3D printed a human heart
Want to test out some COVID-19 therapies? 3D bioprinting to the rescue!

With this scaffolding in place, bioink is then printed in place layer by layer until the entire form is made. Bioink consists of liquid cells as well as a hydrogel that gives it a bit of stability. Once in place, these cells can survive and function just like normal cells. For research involving COVID-19 therapies, tiny human organs of the lung and liver are being created. Rather than having to perform trials on actual patients or animals, these 3D-printed organs can be used for investigative purposes.

“We are accompanying the spectacular work from our peers in the scientific community and have identified tremendous potential for our platform to enable COVID-19 research in a much faster, yet physiologically relevant manner.” – Taciana Pereira, Allevi Vice President of Life Sciences

Current Investigations in COVID-19 Therapies

Several research labs and technology companies are actively involved in using 3D bioprinting currently. The primary areas of research involve the use of 3D printed human organs infected with coronavirus to see its mechanism of action. This could offer hope in developing a more effective coronavirus vaccine. Secondly, these same 3D-printed tissues infected with the virus are being tested with new treatments. This serves to determine both the effectiveness and toxicity effects of new COVID-19 therapies. Both have obvious benefits.

Several of these companies and labs deserve recognition. Viscient Bioscience LLC has a history of working with 3D bioprinting and organ research. For example, it has been involved in the production of human liver tissues from diseased patients to study pathologic tendencies. Viscient is actively developing addition human tissues to evaluate COVID-19 therapies. Another company, Allevi, is doing the same with human lung tissues. This Philadelphia startup is working with biomedical researchers at Wistar Institute for similar purposes. Both are hopeful that these approaches will accelerate important discoveries.

“The more closely our [3D bioprinting] model recreates the human disease, the better our understanding of whether a therapy will work” – Keith Murphy, Chief Executive Officer of Viscient Biosciences LLC

The Pros and Cons of 3D Bioprinting in COVID-19

The advantages of 3D bioprinting are noteworthy. Naturally, the quality of the research is enhanced with these models. They offer better approaches to study the actual effects of diseases on human tissues that petri dishes and animal experiments. But at the same time, these strategies improve efficiency of research and resource utilization. If 3D-printed tissues can be easily reproduced, then investigations can proceed more quickly. In addition, 3D bioprinting may also enhance precision medicine. If an individual’s own cells are used to create the tissues, that person’s response to therapy can be better predicted. This is not only useful for COVID-19 therapies but for all types of interventions.

At the same time, challenges exist with 3D bioprinting. One of the challenges involve the variety of cell types that exist within different human organs. Researchers such as those at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have recognized this when 3D-printing skin cells. Not only are skin cells involved but so are vascular cells and glandular cells. In terms of the coronavirus itself, it would be ideal to develop 3D-printed models of organs from infected patients. However, the infectious nature of the virus hinders such an approach. While this doesn’t completely preempt research of COVID-19 therapies, it is a limitation.

An Exciting and Evolving Health Technology

Advances in the field of 3D bioprinting are happening at warp speed. These innovative technologies are quite exciting and have relevance for many fields. This is particularly true for researchers striving to develop COVID-19 therapies. Even companies like Oracle are involved. They are working with biomedical companies by placing a chip within 3D-printed organs that conveys additional information. Data concerning toxicity effects as well as treatment benefits can further improve research insights. While 3D bioprinting may be a work in progress, its potential is amazing. And it may prove to play a key role in expediting effective COVID-19 therapies for use.


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