The Stanford University researchers have been working long hours honing a three-dimensional printing process to make biomaterials like wood and enamel out of mere clumps of cells. Pundits say such 3D bioprinting has vast potential, and could one day be widely used to transform specially engineered cells into structural beams, food, and human tissue. Rothschild and Gentry don’t only see these laboratory-created materials helping only doctors and Mars voyagers. They also envision their specific research – into so-called “synthetic biomaterials” – changing the way products like good-old-fashioned wooden two-by-fours are made and used by consumers.
Here’s their plan: Rothschild, an evolutionary biologist who works for NASA and teaches astrobiology at Stanford, and Gentry, her doctoral advisee who is trained in biology and mechanical engineering, are working with $100,000 they received last fall from the space agency’s Innovative Advanced Concept Program. They say they’re on track to prove their concept by October: a three-dimensional printing process that yields arrays of cells that can excrete non-living structural biomaterials like wood, mineral parts of bone and tooth enamel. They’re building a massive database of cells already in nature, refining the process of engineering select cells to make and then excrete (or otherwise deliver) the desired materials, and tweaking hardware that three-dimensionally prints modified cells into arrays that yield the non-living end products.
“Cells produce an enormous array of products on the Earth, everything from wool to silk to rubber to cellulose, you name it, not to mention meat and plant products and the things that we eat,” Rothschild said. “Many of these things are excreted (from cells). So you’re not going to take a cow or a sheep or a probably not a silk worm or a tree to Mars. But you might want to have a very fine veneer of either silk or wood. So instead of taking the whole organism and trying to make something, why couldn’t you do this all in a very precise way – which actually may be a better way to do it on Earth as well – so that you’re printing an array of cells that then can secrete or produce these products?”
Rothschild and Gentry’s setup is different from using basic 3D printers that deliver final products. Instead, the NASA-funded researchers are using 3D printing as an enabling technology of sorts. Their setup involves putting cells in a gelling solution with some sort of chemical signaling and support into a piezoelectric print head that spits out cells that form a gel-based 3D pattern.
Andrew Hessel, a biotechnology analyst who is a distinguished researcher with San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk Inc., said the emerging field of 3D bioprinting is a “pretty wide open space” with different researchers “all dancing on multiple fronts at once.” And the research is not without controversy. Information-technology research firm Gartner, Inc. recently predicted 3D printing of living tissue and organs will soon spur a major ethical debate.
Hessel said the most-complex 3D bioprinting research is being done with the actual engineering of cells. Companies like Organovo, for example, aren’t actually engineering the cells, and instead are differentiating and laying them in a way that they can mature and grow in to functional tissue.