Welcome to Episode 198 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is Founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
For the podcast this week, we’re going to discuss bio-printing in all its various applications, from 3D printing bones to human organs and tissues and what those implications might be for design and science. Bio-printing is still very much at its nascent stages. Of course, we see a lot of news about 3D printing of other types of materials especially in the health care space that are farther along than bioprinting. 3D printing in health care has a pretty solid relationship, no pun intended. The health care space is just filled with opportunities to create for the better prosthetic limbs, better parts that can be used to replace parts that wear out on the human body.
It’s almost as if the 3D printing field is made to walk hand in hand with health care, in particular, what’s becoming exceptionally powerful is this creating from a CT scan or an MRI, creating a 3D model that can then be printed out. If you are replacing part of your jaw or if you’re replacing a part of your wind pipes, say, you can use actual scans of your own body that can be digitized and then created in another material such as plastic or titanium or what have you.
That’s the non-biologic 3D printing which is a powerful tool for health care. Today, we’re going to dig in a little bit to living tissue which is, I think fairly amazing it’s even possible that you could create living tissue cell by cell using this stacking not dissimilar from what a conventional 3D printer might use. But also just looking back at inkjet printing which is the inspiration for this field in its entirety. Just the idea that you could have instead of ink, instead of plastic coming out of these nozzles, you’re going to have bio inks or living cells that are getting put together into tissues. On the most basic level, that’s what’s happening.
There are some early companies that are creating as you might imagine, these large machines for creating the bioprinting. It’ll be awhile before we have our desktop bioprinters for replacing some lost part, hopefully not. Reproducing cells in the lab, of course, has been done for years and years, whether it’s creating a skin tissue or blood vessels or what have you. What 3D bi printing offers is this opportunity to create complex tissues and more complete, I won’t say complete organs because it’s unproven just yet. That’s the opportunity there. Dirk, I know that was a wide ranging preamble but what’s your take on the advancements in bioprinting and how it really has implications for the intersection of design and science?
This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about bioprinting over the years on this show. In the past, it was a little bit of hand waving which is to say it’s understood that we’ve been heading towards bioprinting a replacement heart as an example. It was in the future. It was something that wasn’t necessarily clear from the standpoint of the science and technology, from concept to full realization.
We’re reaching a point now where those, at least in a hypothetical or a prototype level, those dots now are being connected together. Even more than that as you pointed out, the integration of living cells as well. Shifting from earlier when bioprinting is a topic, it’s more creating a part that’s synthetic in the way that we understand artificial hearts and other synthetic parts in the past that are more mass created. Now, moving away from that as something of plastic or metal or some materials that we’re familiar with in our everyday lives and moving to not just biological cells and matter but actually, using the cells of the recipient in the placement parts in order to have those parts be integrated more easily into the body be accepted by the host to use at a slightly more formal language.
That’s remarkable, really remarkable, because now, it’s not constant , now it’s really close to reality albeit not a scale. A key signifier for that is we’re now seeing health care systems, hospitals universities, planning, budgeting to have labs, have buildings, have organizations that are focused on the fabrication of these kind of customer placement parts based on our own cells, on our own Tin May. Money is being spent and infrastructure is being built to realize these things not just with a couple of experimenter but from the standpoint of implementation at the level of a hospital or health care system.
That’s a big deal. That’s really going full out from … out here is a cool future thing that’s coming to … this is something that’s on the path to being really and we can see it from both a scientific and a business perspective.
It does have some pretty substantial implications for the way health care is practiced. What I mean by that is we’re all familiar with going to the car dealership or to the mechanic to have routine maintenance done and have worn out parts replaced on our vehicles as that time has come whether it’s your spark plugs or your tires, or in Massachusetts in particular, I go through sets of tires because they can’t seem to fix the roads. The point is that it’s … for mechanical devices such as our automobiles, it’s regular part and parcel of maintenance to be replacing parts and the logistics of getting those parts to us and into the vehicle, it’s fairly trivial given that there’s probably a global supply chain that creates the tire for my SUV. Nonetheless, it’s fairly easy for me to do.
If you’re replacing a part on yourself whether it’s because you’ve had an injury or because of the wear and tear over time, this becomes a substantial blocker, I think, in the health care system. Burn victims could have trouble getting skin grafts or if you need a part replaced like a joint that can be a pretty major undertaking. What 3D bioprinting lays out for us is a way in which it’s possible that we’d not only be able to get these parts, these organs, but also in an on-demand capacity. If you’re on an organ waiting list, of course, that can be many, many years long depending on what you’re waiting for.
What we’re talking about in a designed future is a time when maybe it’s still non-trivial to get a placement organ but it’s fully possible to create that in an on-demand capacity. It becomes closer to my journey over to the mechanic rather than a drawn out very stressful odyssey.
Yeah, lots of people die for not being able to get an organ replacement today. That can largely go away at least for certain organs, certainly.
Sure. Even in a nearer term future, there’s active study being given to creating 3D or bioprinted skin so that burn victims, soldier on the battle field, there are injuries where time is of the essence in terms of creating that, needing that skin right away so that you don’t have the scarification and other problems that come along with that over time. Just being able to create that on-demand, I would think, would have some pretty major positive output for people who have those kinds of injuries.
Even beyond that. Design for disability has pushed forward a lot of fields around material science that have go beyond just servicing the disabled. These are technologies that certainly the field of plastic surgery could use in cosmetic ways for folks who are looking to change the way they look.
Right. There’s all sorts of science fiction around, very expansive body modification. We can see the natural human tendency to modify your body whether it be via tattoos or piercings or what have you. I’m sure that being able to create tissues on-demand might lead to another set of areas for artistic exploration to put it mildly.
Absolutely. I think from a social perspective, that is the part of all of this that it has the potential to be really revolutionary is changing the physical manifestation of self into something that is more totally similar to how we view clothing and accessories today. Getting away from that, this is who I am and how I am on some objective and fixed way and going to a more mercurial presentation of self and other.
Yeah. The technology of bioprinting also has within its reach the potential for enhancing other areas of science. We use animals for testing various pharmaceutical and other products that get animal tested. How much more ethical and more efficient if we have human tissues that can be used in testing regimen that would provide actual real feedback on what it would be for the human body versus animal testing. This tissue could be generated almost in a manufacturing capacity. It wouldn’t be necessarily from a living human but rather generated via bioprinting. There are implications for this technology across other sciences as well which I think is pretty significant.
One thing that … this all makes realize as we discuss bioprinting is there’s an aspect to this where nature is taking its course and helping to create the tissues. We don’t quite know all of the side effects, all of the outcomes that can come from bioprinting unlike a simple ink or a simple piece of plastic material where we know what the general outcome is going to be from the creation that we’re making whether it’s a poster or you’re printing a form with your 3D printer. We don’t really know the entirety of what printing cells is going to generate. We have an idea of how tissues are going to react but at the same time this technology is also reliant on leveraging natural processes. When the cells are next to each other, they start changing, they start binding together. There are natural processes that take place that go beyond the simple placement of the cells in a particular order.
This is true of most bio technology. There’s a section of which is knowable and there is a section of which we still have an awful lot to learn. Suffice it to say, there’s going to be a bit of a gap there as some of this starts coming into play but very promising and as far as technology’s go, pretty exciting what the possibilities will be.
You mentioned testing as one thing. Something that strikes me about the progress of bioprinting technologies in so far as I’m able to see them as more of an enthusiast and less as an expert is a lack of testing compared to other aspects of the health care system. Here in the United States, the regulatory body is called the FDA. The FDA is notorious from people’s perspective of having these long testing cycles before they approve things for general consumer use. Bioprinting is moving fast. The integration of different materials into the human body, the theories on how that could manifest are very broad that I’m reading so far and I’m not seeing a time or rigor around testing at the level that the FDA would put pharmaceuticals through for example.
That may just come later. That may be a chunk that’s going to slide in there. I’m not hearing much about it. I’m curious to see what happens on the regulatory side around this stuff because so far it seems to be going in a different less regulated direction than a lot of other things in the health care system.
I think that’s a way a lot of innovations starts out is somewhat less regulated.
It’s all fun and games till somebody dies, right?
Right, or until somebody realizes that it’s time to regulate whichever comes first. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to TheDigitalife.com, that’s just one ‘L’ in the Digitalife, and go to the page for this episode.
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You can follow me on Twitter @DKnemeyer, that’s @DKNEMEYER, and thanks so much for listening.
That’s it for Episode 198 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.