Loveland-made 3D printers could eventually help build human organs

Loveland-based 3D printer manufacturer Aleph Objects announced Wednesday that it had teamed up with a company in a collaboration that eventually could lead to 3D printing of human organs.

Working with Massachusetts-based FluidForm, Aleph has modified its LulzBot Mini 2 desktop printer to enable it to 3D-print liquids including the building blocks of human tissue in a process called bioprinting.

“We’re not going to see bioprinted hearts in people in three or four years; that’s still a fantasy,” FluidForm CEO Mike Graffeo said in a phone interview Wednesday. But it’s possibility down the road, he said.

Loveland-based 3D printer manufacturer Aleph Objects provided this photo of a piece of an artery that was created in a petri dish with a LulzBot printer.

In fact, Graffeo said, “the biggest emphases in bioprinting today line up with the biggest needs in transplants: heart, lung, liver, kidney and eyeball.”

“When I was an undergraduate, with the first notion of tissue-engineered organs, everyone got excited and said we would have them in 10 years. It’s been 25 years, and we don’t,” Graffeo said. “But now … finally we have a line of sight of how to do it.”

Graffeo, a veteran of the medical device industry, and FluidForm chief technology officer Adam Feinberg, a biomedical engineer and assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, knew each other in college, Graffeo said, and they reconnected about a year and a half ago. They formed FluidForm last year to commercialize the results of Feinberg’s research in the lab, including advances in bioprinting.

The technology of 3D printing involves a highly accurate print head laying down layer after layer of material, usually a plastic, to create something. In bioprinting, the print head is replaced by a syringe with a needle that deposits layers of what is called “bioink.”

A biological “scaffold”

Graffeo explained that the human body is made up of two main things besides water: “cells and the stuff that keeps the cells in place — the extracellular matrix.”

This matrix is “the scaffold around the cells that holds them where they belong,” he said.

With substances such as collagen, FluidForm 3D-prints biological scaffolds using its FRESH technique, which stands for Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels.

On these scaffolds, stem cells can be applied that will regenerate into tissues to help heal wounds and rebuild joints, and much more.

“That’s really hard to do because collagen is a liquid in a syringe,” Graffeo said, so if applied to a surface, “it would be a puddle.”

That’s where a breakthrough material from FluidForm comes in. Called LifeSupport, the gel-like material is placed in a petri dish, and the printer’s needle creates a three-dimensional structure in the gel. The medium holds up the bioink as it’s laid down into the appropriate shape.

When the LifeSupport gel is warmed, it melts away, leaving the 3D bioprinted structure.

A video on the FluidForm website shows a LulzBot printer creating a piece of an artery.

While other labs and companies are using bioinks that are available from various vendors, FluidForm is the only maker of a gel to support the inks and allow a three-dimensional structure to be printed, Graffeo said.

Feinberg and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon published a scientific paper in 2015 describing their advances in creating complex three-dimensional biological structures with the use of a support bath.

Converting 3D printers

“At that lab for a long time, they had been converting standard, off-the-shelf 3D printers into bioprinters,” Graffeo said. One of the brands was the Loveland-made LulzBot.

“The LulzBot systems are great in terms of reliability, they work really well, and they’re plenty accurate for what we want to do,” he said.

So last year, FluidForm started talking with Aleph Objects, and the result is the LulzBot Bio, which will be available for purchase this summer, according to a press release from Aleph.

Engineers in Loveland designed a needle extruder for their Mini 2 printer and optimized the machine in other ways, Moe said.

A standard LulzBot Mini 2 runs $1,500, Moe said, but he doesn’t know how much the LulzBot Bio will cost.

“I think I can comfortably say it will be under $10,000,” he said. “I personally want it to be within the range of the Front Range Community College budget.”

Although Graffeo said bioprinted organs are not just around the corner, the technology can be used right now to help scientists find success in their bioprinting efforts.

“First there will be research applications, and then they eventually will be able to translate that into clinical trials of novel things that people are trying in their labs,” he said.

For example, Graffeo said, before researchers figure out how to create a whole heart or kidney, they could build enough of an organ that would mimic how such an organ would react to drugs so they could test new pharmaceuticals — an interim step between animal testing and human trials.

“I think this is really groundbreaking where this can be taken,” Aleph Objects’ Moe said.

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