Scientists have developed a new 3D printing method capable of producing highly uniform blocks of embryonic stem cells, which could be used as the ‘Lego bricks’ to build larger structures of tissues, and potentially even micro-organs.
These cells are capable of generating all cell types in the body, the researchers said.
“It was really exciting to see that we could grow embryoid body in such a controlled manner,” said lead author Wei Sun, from Drexel University in US.
“The grown embryoid body is uniform and homogenous, and serves as a much better starting point for further tissue growth,” Sun said.
The researchers used extrusion-based 3D printing to produce a grid-like 3D structure to grow embryoid body that demonstrated cell viability and rapid self-renewal for seven days while maintaining high pluripotentcy.
“Two other common methods of printing these cells are either two-dimensional (in a petri dish) or via the ‘suspension’ method (where a ‘stalagmite’ of cells is built up by material being dropped via gravity),” said Sun.
“However, these don’t show the same cell uniformity and homogenous proliferation,” Sun said.
“I think that we’ve produced a 3D microenvironment which is much more like that found in vivo for growing embryoid body, which explains the higher levels of cell proliferation,” he said.The researchers hope that this technique can be developed to produce embryoid body at a high throughput, providing the basic building blocks for other researchers to perform experiments on tissue regeneration and/or for drug screening studies. “Our next step is to find out more about how we can vary the size of the embryoid body by changing the printing and structural parameters, and how varying the embryoid body size leads to “manufacture” of different cell types,” said Rui Yao, from Tsinghua University in China.
“In the longer term, we’d like to produce controlled heterogeneous embryonic bodies,” said Sun.
“This would promote different cell types developing next to each other – which would lead the way for growing micro-organs from scratch within the lab,” he added.
While most startups gain their first boost through large amounts of VC funding, DF3D stands out. The Bengaluru-based ‘design factory for 3D printing’, launched in February 2014, was among the thirty startups which were showcased at TechSparks 2014. A year later, DF3D has a unique tale to tell the world – one which is backed by the Union government itself.
Although 3D printing – which started as additive printing in the US before 24 years – was not entirely a new concept in India, the people had not yet warmed up to the concept. Deepak Raj, founder, says that his entrepreneurial venture, which began as India’s first marketplace for B2C, shifted to B2B after six months of its inception for more revenue.
With about 22 years’ experience in software and sales, Deepak, an ex-employee of GE, was clear that printing is gradually becoming a commodity. “There are at least 25 players in India in 3D printing, concentrating more on production and mechatronics. We wanted to concentrate on designing and software for making prototypes and customised products,” says Deepak. However, there was no external funding; but within a few months since they converted to B2B, they started generating enough revenue to fund themselves.
It was then that DF3D launched Osteo3d, to provide 3D printing for surgical planning. It got some much attention that in March 2015, DF3D got funded by the Government of India: the Department of Biotechnology sanctioned a grant of Rs. 50 lakh.
Osteo3d has already had 38 cases, in cranial, orthopaedic, and maxillofacial surgical procedures. For instance, for surgical fixing of jaw bones, an exact piece is designed and printed by Osteo3D, and is placed in position by a surgical expert.
Deepak says that while such products cost Rs.1,20,000 outside, Osteo3d do it for Rs.30, 000 and are planning to reduce the price again. He claims that Osteo3D is the world’s first ecommerce marketplace for skulls and bones.
“Based on live patient data, how will you get a skull for a particular defect? We have 150 different models for this,” says Deepak. One in 2000 children are born with skull not properly formed, affecting brain development and causing behavioural disabilities. In such cases, Osteo3d’s 3D printed helmet exerts pressure in the right parts so that skull grows in the right direction.
But lack of awareness is still a problem. Even among doctors, Deepak says, there was certain reluctance as, in India, we rarely do normal reconstruction. But they are definitely warming up to the idea. Osteo3d has three doctors in advisory board, and has partnered with 25 doctors including from AIIMS.
While he plans to make Osteo3D a brand of its own in the long run, Deepak is content about DF3D’s progress. He believes that 3D printing of the future can revolutionise e-commerce and logistics altogether. For an order from abroad, the file is digitally manufactured and sent to the printer online; there is no question of shipping and associated charges. “Products get manufactured after you place the order; hence there is no need for an inventory. In that sense, 3D printing is a threat to courier companies. Even for orders from US, we send them the design, they manufacture it in US itself,” says Deepak.
In 3D printing, you get an online 3D view of the product you ordered, and can customise it and do transactions. DF3D provides software plugins used by 3D printing companies, as well as algorithm to calculate the pricing.
DF3D launched its own app – Extrud3it – 3 months ago. It gives a pricing quote, first app in the world to do so for 3D printing. DF3D currently has 8 members in its team, and customers from all over the world.
With the expiry of key patents, increasing awareness, and advancement in material research, 3D printing is finally taking off. In 2014, US-based Autodesk (3D design and engineering software firm) launched $100 million fund to encourage 3D printing technology. According to a study by 6WResearch consulting firm, the 3D printer market in India is expected to cross $79 million by 2021. Global players such as 3D Systems and Optomec have already made their entry in India. Indian startups are not lagging behind as well. Mumbai-based MaherSoft, Jaipur-based aha!3D, Bengaluru-based Fracktal and Global 3D Labs, are among the pioneers in the field.