There is a global shortage of organs available for lifesaving transplants. In the UK, for example, you can now expect to wait an average of 944 days – more than two-and-a-half years – for a kidney transplant on the NHS. There’s a similar shortage of liver, lungs and other organs. Around 900,000 deaths a year, or around one-third of all deaths in the US, could be prevented or delayed by organ or engineered tissue transplants. The demand is endless and 3D printing is making it’s way to offer a solution to the problem.
Cellink was born in January 2016. Although the technology is the stuff of science fiction, the business principle is classic “razor and blades”. In this model, which is as old as the inventor King Gillette, at the turn of the last century, you practically give away the razor and you make the money on the disposable blades. And repeat, for ever. Or inkjet printers: everyone knows the serious returns are in the replacement ink cartridges.
Gatenholm and Marínez developed and brought to the market the world’s first standardized bionic: it is made from a material called nanocellulose alginate, which is extracted in part from seaweed. If you owned a 3D bioprinter, here was a product you could effectively buy off the shelf.
The impact of Cellink, especially considering its tender years, has been remarkable. The company has already won a slew of awards: for innovation and entrepreneurialism, as well as backing from Sweden’s version of Dragons’ Den. Ten months after its launch, Gatenholm went to the stock market, becoming listed on Nasdaq First North. The initial public offering was oversubscribed by 1,070%.
Bioprinting, as Gatenholm cheerily accepts, is something of a trippy idea and one that raises some ethical concerns. The principles are very similar to conventional 3D printing: you start by using a computer program to make a virtual representation of what you’d like to make and then a printer builds it slice by slice – sometimes around a pre-prepared scaffold – until you have the finished object. But instead of jewellery, little statues or parts for cars, bioprinters offer the potential to create living tissue.
In the beginning, this might mean printing skin or cartilage, which are relatively simple structures and are more straightforward to grow outside the body. Eventually, however, the pioneers of this 3D printing technology believe they will be able to create complex organs, such as hearts and livers, from scratch. These could then be used in human transplants.
We are a little way off from these developments being a reality. But not too far: bioprinted skin could be five years away, thinks Gatenholm. “Within 10 years, we’ll start seeing some implants in the cartilage field, either partial or full,” he says. “Replacement organs, it’s our lifetime.” He adds, smiling: “It’s in our lifetime.”
Already, inevitably, there are some ethical concerns. These range from fears over the quality and the efficacy of artificial skin and implants to the accusation that bioprinting will allow humans to “play God”. Perhaps the most thorough investigation of these issues has been undertaken by a team at the Science, Technology and Innovation Studies department at the University of Edinburgh.
Gatenholm is proud that his company is driving down the costs of 3D printing. While Cellink’s clients include MIT, Harvard and University College London, the company is also making the new technology available to hobbyists. Gatenholm doesn’t know how these people will use their machines and inks – perhaps for printing tissues to test drugs or taking cells from a cancerous tumour and using multiple versions to work out how best to treat it – but that is what makes the new technology so exciting.