Interview: 3D bioprinting realties and timescales

After a unique 3D bioprinting research symposium in London we chat with UCL’s expert: Dr Deepak Kalaskar 

There’s something about being at conferences with early-stage technologies being shared by academics and researchers. What the venues normally lack in terms of corporate luxury – large glass panels and brushed aluminium – is more than made-up for by the excitement and camaraderie displayed by the presenters and participants.

With a very early start on 22 November, we joined participants at the 3D Bioprinting Research Symposium at the Royal Free Hospital in London to learn about the latest techniques, discoveries and prospects for 3D bioprinting.

We caught-up with the event’s organiser Dr Deepak Kalaskar, Associate Professor of Bioengineering at UCL, and a world-leader in the field to talk organs-on-a-chip, bioinks, neural integration and the progress towards approved 3D bioprinting therapies.

Longevity.Technology: Were there any announcements at this year’s conference that made you think “Hmm, that’s exciting”?

Deepak Kalaskar: I was excited about the discussion on regulations, the increasing number of patent applications, and the socio-ethical implications of organs “on demand”. It was clear from the meeting that as 3D printed tissue becomes available we will need to deal with complex geopolitical and regulatory barriers (country-by-country) at every stage. This might impact the availability, cost and healthcare access to people.

Longevity.Technology: We’ve covered vasculature as a key requirement for the success of 3d bioprinting, do you consider vascularisation is close to being solved or would you score this as being still early stage (see our TRL scoring here)?

Deepak Kalaskar: Vascularisation is one of the challenges to be realised in 3D bioprinted tissue. I would say, we have made great progress in developing strategies based on innovative materials and printing technology to create networks similar to vascular structures. However, it’s very early work, we are at TRL 2-3 stage.

TRL score 3 orange

Longevity.Technology: Where would you TRL score the overall 3D bioprinting field and how long do you think it’ll be before the field move on to the next level?

Deepak Kalaskar: The bioprinting field is highly interdisciplinary. There are innovations happening in hardware (printers), software, bio-Inks and also we are improving our understanding of 3D cell biology. We have made more progress with some bioprinted tissues than others, especially bone, cartilage and skin (TRL 3-4). Whereas complex tissues or organs, where vasculature is required to keep tissue alive will need more time.

TRL4 orange

Longevity.Technology: In the conference we asked about neural/nerve integration and you mentioned that this was still being addressed in a biological way.

Deepak Kalaskar: The microenvironment for nerve tissue is very complex. So far our understanding of nerve tissue is limited to 2D culture. Most of work in this area focuses on disease model development to understand the pathology of various diseases such as brain cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. With bioprinting we are now able to study nerve tissue in a 3D environment. Similar to vasculature, we are making progress in our understanding of the 3D microenvironment to develop strategies to replicate this.

As far as nerve tissues transplant is concerned, there is an immediate potential to use bioprinted nerves during surgery when we are able to print nerve conduits longer than 3cm in length – which remains challenging surgically.

Longevity.Technology: Is neural integration a mandatory step for 3D bioprinting or do you think another (more achievable) kind of electrical/neural stimulation could be introduced to move the field forwards?

Dr Deepak Kalaskar in his lab at UCL Healthcare Engineering in London

Deepak Kalaskar: I don’t think its mandatory to biomimic every structure. What we should focus on is function. We should look to alternative and innovative ways to achieve biological function. This is been looked at by creating responsive and conductive materials for bioprinting applications.

Longevity.Technology: Which organ(s) do you think is/are the closest to being 3D bioprinted?

Deepak Kalaskar: Simple tissues such as bone, cartilage, tendon, skin will become available for translational applications within 5-10 years. Bioprinted tissues will soon be available for drug testing – improving the efficiency of drug discovery and safety for patients.

Longevity.Technology: Is nano technology entering the field in any significant way – if yes, which applications do you see working at nano scale? 

Deepak Kalaskar: Nano materials are very interesting in medicine and traditionally have been applied to the basic scientific understating of cell biology, drug discovery and developing micro arrays. Using printing technology to achieve the same objectives is exciting, as we can do this fast, and scale-up the process of discovery and applications.

Longevity.Technology: Organ on a chip has progressed with this announcement from AZ and NovoHeart… do you have any comment on this as a progression for the field?

Deepak Kalaskar: I would say this is the way to go. It will provide a win-win situation for both companies. AA and NovoHeart have their own expertise in the field. This helps to spread the risk between two companies. Although organ-on-chip does not present the full complexity of creating cardiac tissue, a human-specific model will make a huge difference in creating something which is optimised and applied to human diseases.

Longevity.Technology: Organovo has taken a bit of a hit with its share price recently having announced that it hadn’t enough evidence of prolonged functionality or therapeutic benefit … do you consider that they were too optimistic? 

Deepak Kalaskar: Organovo is pioneering company in the field with years of experience. It might seem like failure, but the lessons learned during the past 10 years will help them build better and more efficient bioprinted tissues. No doubt, bioprinting is a risky venture, as any technology in its early years. The first commercial opportunity which bioprinting is likely to present will be in drug discovery platforms, organ-on-chip and disease modelling. Once we are past these stages in terms of innovation and commercialisation, we will have the knowhow to tackle 3D tissue and/or organ for human transplantation.

Longevity.Technology: Your department at UCL appears very active. What technologies are you working on and what outcomes are you able to share with us?

Deepak Kalaskar: We are closely associated with four London hospitals. Our labs are based in the Royal Free Hospital (RFH) and Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital (RNOH) in London. This provides us with a unique opportunity to work with, and solve, real-life challenges in collaboration with clinical teams. We work on the design and development of various medical devices, implants and futuristic technologies such as bioprinted tissues. We use a range of technologies such as 3D printing, scanning, imaging, novel materials development and testing.

Some of the applications we are developing include 3D printing of bespoke spinal implants for lower back pain (intervertebral disc degeneration), in collaboration with an industrial partner, and RNOH, which aims to reduce the re-operation rate for many patients.

3D printed bespoke screw guides for scoliosis patients, which aim to reduce radiation exposure for children and improve surgical accuracy and clinical safety. This work is supported by ORUK.

We have developed a work-flow for 3D scanning and printing bespoke neck supports for MND patients at RNOH, which has significantly improved their quality of life.

In the bioprinting area, we are working with plastic surgery unit at RFH, to develop a workflow for 3D breast reconstruction using integrated scanning and printing technology for cancer patients.

We are working with industry to develop scalable production for 3D bioprinted osteochondral tissue for arthritis drug screening, 3D printed nerve graft and skin for burns patients. We are collaborating with a few international organisations to develop 3D printed tissue available for cornea repair.

We recently developed new bioink materials for vascularised tissue printing which is biocompatible, cheaper and easier to use compared to other commercial materials. We hope to find a solution for vascularised tissue as that remains ‘Holy Grail’ of bioprinting.

Image credit: Photocritical at Shutterstock & UCL