By Ryan Fitzwater
What you’re about to read could change the world of medicine as we know it.
The technology I’m talking about is three-dimensional cellular construction, better known as 3D bioprinting, and the company delivering this revolutionary technology is Organovo (ONVO).
Based in San Diego, and founded in 2007, Organovo is a startup that looks to take regenerative medicine to the next level with its bioprinting technology.
How It Works
Organovo has created the NovoGen MMX Bioprinter™, the only commercial bioprinter in the world proven to create tissue.
Using both a software and hardware platform, NovoGen can take primary or other human cells and form them into three-dimensional tissue.
You might have heard of companies who are already in the 3D printing industry like Stratasys (Nasdaq: SSYS) or 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD), which can scan and make objects out of various materials. But what separates Organovo printers from others is that their ink is human tissue.
Here’s the “CliffsNotes” version:
The process involves taking a person’s cells, for example, muscle cells, and growing those cells in a culture. Once enough cells are present, an enzyme is applied that releases them from the growing surface and they’re loaded into a pellet-like structure.
The next step is incubation; this is where the cells start to attach to one another. After incubation, cells are placed into a nutrient broth in a Petri dish, where they feed and continue to attach. This is the beginning stage of solid tissue formation.
Next the forming tissue is sucked into a glass tube that serves as an ink cartridge and is loaded into the printer. With a computer-programmed script, the printer deposits the tissue into the desired shape.
The NovoGen will deposit the tissue one line at a time on top of a layer of gel.
Over a few days, the cells will merge into a single piece of tissue. After the tissue growth is entirely complete, it’s virtually identical to something removed from a human.
To date, the company has created several tissue types including lung, cardiac muscle and blood vessels.
So where’s the money in this?
Printing for Pharmaceuticals
Drug and biotech companies for decades have seen promising drugs fail in clinical trails.
Companies would see drugs initially tested in cell cultures and animals pass with flying colors, only to have them fail in clinical trials, since animals and cultures are extremely different from human tissue.
With Organovo’s 3D printing system, it becomes a new story for saving time and cost.
Since the NovoGen printer creates a product so similar to human tissue, it could help drug researchers spot drugs that would fail long before they reach clinical trials.
And knowing that a potential drug wouldn’t make it past clinical trials could possibly save drug companies billions of dollars.
The company is actively experimenting to prove that its 3D bioprinting technology can help drug companies identify drug toxicity before other tests. Organovo has already started the groundwork to set up partnerships with major drug companies, and first on their list is the drug giant Pfizer.
But it isn’t just drug companies that the company is targeting; they have bigger ideas in motion.
Implications for the Future
According to Donate Life America, more than 100,000 people currently need life-saving organ transplants in the United States. And another name is added to the national organ transplant waiting list every 10 minutes.
On average, 18 people die everyday due to a lack of organ transplants available.
And while organ donors provide a selfless act, out current system of transplanting organs from one human to the next still holds high chances of rejection.
Transplant rejection happens when transplanted tissue is rejected by the human recipient’s immune system. While rejections can be decreased by immunosuppressant drugs and finding molecular similarity between recipients and donors, they still happen frequently.
This is where Organovo hopes to step in and change the transplant game for good.
To date the company has only made small pieces of tissue, but the final goal is to use 3D tissue creating technology to print complete organs for transplants.
Organs could be created using a patient’s own cell, providing a lesser danger of transplant rejection. Moving forward, the company plans to finance organ-printing research with revenue received from tissue printing for drug makers.
Literally printing and growing a heart for someone using their own cells is something normally seen in science fiction, but with 3D bioprinting it could become a reality in the near future.
It’s no surprise that Organovo recently landed itself on MIT’s Technology Review’s 2012 list of the world’s 50 most innovative technology companies.
Investors should keep an eye on the company if it becomes successful in bringing the technology to the medical market at a significant scale, but take extra caution here as Organovo is still in its public infancy and volume on this microcap is extremely low.