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Welcome to the future: This 3D printer uses living cells to print human tissue

We’ve all read stories about amputees and disabled people getting 3D printed prosthetic limbs, but what if you could 3D print real body parts made from living tissue, not just plastic replacements? Sounds crazy, right? Well as far-fetched and outlandish as it sounds, this is precisely what Philadelphia-based startup BioBots is doing.

To be fair, the company definitely isn’t the first to take a stab at this idea. Researchers have been exploring biofabrication (the process of building living tissue structures) for well over a decade at this point — but BioBots founders Danny Cabrera and Ricardo Solorzano believe they’ve figured out a better way to do it.

“Our idea was we can use the same approaches that were used in the maker movement to build smaller and cheaper devices in biotech,” Cabrera said in an interview with TechCrunch. “When we looked at what was out there, we found devices that existed were huge — they looked like old mainframe computers, they took up entire rooms, they cost half a million dollars and were really difficult to operate. You needed technicians to operate them.”

3d printed earInstead of using the large, outdated, and ridiculously expensive machinery that biofabrication researchers currently employ, these guys have developed a small, low-cost 3D printer that can do the job faster and more effectively. Biobots’ 3D printer uses a specially engineered ink that can be combined with living cells to build living, three-dimensional tissue structures.

Related: The best use for 3D bioprinting? Reconstructing Van Gogh’s severed ear, obviously

The key to this process (and what differentiates the BioBots printer from other biofab machines) is the printer’s ink. It contains a special “photoinitiator powder” that cures and solidifies when hit with a certain wavelength of blue light, making it possible to build biomaterial structures without using pressure or UV light, as many existing biofabrication devices do. According to Cabrera, this method is more effective for printing living tissue because excessive pressure and UV light can both harm cells, but blue light doesn’t.

In order to print a living tissue structure, a user simply combines BioBots’ photoinitiator powder with whatever living cells they’d like to print, along with binding factors that help the cells stick together. This mixture is then placed inside the machine, which uses hydraulic pressure to push it through the extruder. Designs can be loaded onto the printer just like any other 3D printer, so users can create structure designs with the same CAD or 3D modeling software they already use.

The technology isn’t quite ready for primetime just yet, but BioBots has already produced a number of prototypes, and has been working closely with medical researchers across the country to get feedback and make improvements. The founders are currently looking to secure funding for further development.