Light-based bioprinting is illuminating the future of organ transplants

Vidmantas Šakalys, CEO of Vital3D Technologies, explains how laser technology is advancing bioprinting and opening up new possibilities in regenerative medicine.

Using 3D printers to create organs and tissues tailored to individual patients’ needs is not the stuff of science fiction – it is a reality that is inching closer with every technological advancement. Bioprinting is a field that is rapidly progressing, with the promise of reshaping the medical landscape.

Some recent breakthroughs underscore the technology’s tremendous potential. Take, for example, the creation of the first-ever small-scale heart to be 3D-printed using human cells, produced at the University of Tel Aviv in 2019, or the recent development of more advanced bio-inks, the substances made of living cells that are used as the raw material in bioprinting.

Breakthroughs like these are fueling a groundswell of enthusiasm around bioprinting. That being said, there are still key challenges that must be overcome before the technology can achieve its full potential. In light of these challenges, the bioprinting industry needs to prioritize innovations that balance technological advancement with long-term patient safety.

Light-based bioprinting is illuminating the future of organ transplants

Challenges in bioprinting

The process of replicating human tissues and organs is enormously complex and delicate, requiring machines that can operate with speed and precision while handling sensitive materials.

One key challenge is vascularization, which is the creation of intricate networks of blood vessels throughout bioprinted structures. Blood vessels are the lifelines of tissues and organs, delivering essential nutrients and oxygen while also removing waste products. This exchange is vital for the survival and proper function of cells.

Without adequate vascularization, the potential of bioprinted tissues and organs is severely limited. Cells in the inner regions of larger constructs may die due to a lack of nutrients and oxygen, rendering the tissues nonfunctional. This is why the development of effective vascularization techniques is a priority for researchers looking to advance the field of bioprinting toward the ultimate goal of creating fully functional, transplantable organs and tissues for medical use.

Another key challenge is speed. Current methods of bioprinting, while meticulous, are slow. This limits the potential for rapid deployment in clinical settings where time is critical, such as in the production of skin tissues for burn victims or cartilage for joint repair. Streamlining the bioprinting process could result in the more efficient production of tissues and organs, improving applications in regenerative medicine, enabling faster prototyping for research, and reducing waiting times for organ transplants.

However, the need for speed in bioprinting must be balanced with the necessity for precision. Any advancement aimed at increasing the pace of bioprinting should maintain, if not improve, the quality of the final tissue constructs to ensure their functional viability and safety for patient use. Any compromise on quality will have significant implications for the success of bioprinted tissues and their acceptance in medical practice.

Light-based bioprinting is illuminating the future of organ transplants

Bioprinting with lasers

An innovative approach that addresses the challenges of speed and vascularization is light-based bioprinting. Instead of spraying a jet of molecules to build up tissues layer by layer, this process works the other way around, directing a light source at photosensitive bio-ink to harden the material under the light’s “pressure.” What results is a printed structure that effectively rises out of a puddle of bio-ink.

The key innovation of this technique is its ability to change the form of the laser beam on the fly, from the shape of a finely sharpened pencil, as small as one micron, to the shape of a wide-fanned brush, to even more complex shapes like ellipses.

Being able to change the shape of the laser beam quickly helps to address one of the major challenges currently facing bioprinting: precisely replicating the complex vascularization in human tissues.

The dynamic light manipulation technology being developed by Vital3D Technologies, called the FemtoBrush, makes it possible to produce all the complex structures of human organs hundreds of times faster than other processes, meaning an entire human kidney could be printed in as little as 24 hours.

Light-based bioprinting is illuminating the future of organ transplants

Lasers light the way to patient safety

Fast and precise bioprinting is not just a matter of technological achievement but also a matter of patient safety. Being able to create highly intricate and varied types of tissue is essential to the long-term viability and biocompatibility of bio-printed organs and tissues. All in all, without being able to produce functional and efficient vascular networks with speed and precision, it will be impossible to keep 3D-printed organs and tissues alive and functional for the long term.

By harnessing advanced laser technologies, light-based bioprinting presents a promising avenue to revolutionize the field of tissue engineering. While it might take some years for this method to reach its full potential, the advancements thus far bring medicine closer to manufacturing viable human organ replacements. This will redefine how healthcare providers approach treatment for patients in need of organ transplants, making organ donor scarcity a thing of the past.

About Vidmantas Šakalys

Vidmantas Šakalys is a top-level business manager with broad working knowledge in technology innovations and ITT management; he has practical experience of 20+ years in ITT management roles and 10+ years in photonic innovation management. Having founded and led laser research start-up Femtika, Vidmantas is now the CEO of Vital3D.

Photographs courtesy of Vital3D Technologies