ARPA-H bets $26 million that the time has come for 3D printed organs

The US agency is funding a project by Stanford University to bioprint a functioning human heart (and implant it in a living pig within five years)

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Five years. That’s often the timeline you hear when someone asks about 3D printed organs. It was five years fifteen, ten and five years ago. Those who work and do research in bioengineering know the reality is very different. Now, however, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, is willing to bet $26.3 million that Stanford University researchers will be able to bioprint a functioning human heart and implant it in a living pig within five years.

No one says it’s going to be easy. The project is called a “moonshot”, however, “the raw ingredients for bioprinting a complete and complex human organ are now in place for this big push,” said Mark Skylar-Scott, assistant professor of bioengineering, a member of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, and principal investigator on the project.

The vision of fabricating bespoke, patient-specific human organs – livers, lungs, kidneys, brain, and, yes, a human heart – has been a tantalizing dream of modern medicine for years, but only recently has stem cell science, the scale of cell production, and 3D bioprinting advanced to a point where the dream is within reach.

“With vasculature comes the ability to make large and thick tissues that can be implanted and survive,” Skylar-Scott said. “Thus begins the era of organ biofabrication.”

Bioprinting technologies and materials have evolved enormously over the past decade, since, that is, 3D printing, in general, has been gaining ground in all fields of advanced manufacturing. However, a lot remains to be done, from adequate vascularity to cellular viability, to the need to print from all sides at the same time (volumetric printing) rather than just 2D layer upon 2D layer. All these and many more matters are being addressed by research teams all over (and even outside) the world. ARPA-H  and Stanford think that this major injection of capital will accelerate development.

ARPA-H bets $26 million that the time has come for 3D printed organs, funding a project by Stanford to bioprint a functioning human heart

Leap in scale

Driven by advancements in cellular agriculture, much greater bioprinting expertise is now coupled with a dramatic leap in scale in cell production, from the petri dish of old to today’s reactors able to turn out heart-specific cells billions at a time. These will become the bioprinter’s “ink.”

“We are going to use an automated bank of bioreactors to produce the different cell types of the heart,” Skylar-Scott said.

This bank of bioreactors will turn out billions of ventricular and atrial cardiomyocytes, specialized conduction cells that form the Purkinje fibers, nodal cells that are the heart’s pace-making cells, as well as smooth muscle cells, macrophages that support tissue development, and, of course, the blood vessel endothelial cells needed to keep the tissue alive. Skylar-Scott estimates that the team will be able to generate sufficient cells for a heart every two weeks.

“We will use these vast numbers of cells to practice, practice, practice and learn all the design rules of the heart and optimize viability and function at the whole-heart scale for eventual implantation into a pig,” he said. The bioprinted human heart will be transplanted into a pig with severe congenital immunodeficiency to prevent rejection. However, the team’s approach uses patient-specific stem cells that, when transplanted into that same patient, may not require immunosuppression. “Your own heart, made out of your own cells; that is the dream,” Skylar-Scott added.

The dramatic scope of the ARPA-H and Stanford University project prompts a vision of a day when similar biofabrication plants manufacture new hearts, lungs, livers, and other organs for implantation into ailing humans – each bioprinted organ a perfect genetic match for its patient. Such aspirations are to be expected, Skylar-Scott said, but he adds that he believes that day is still decades off, if not more. Still, this bioprinting initiative will serve as a necessary and powerful proof-of-concept to accelerate the commercialization and translation of organ engineering.

ARPA-H bets $26 million that the time has come for 3D printed organs, funding a project by Stanford to bioprint a functioning human heart

Ecosystem of expertise

Discussion of such possibilities brings Skylar-Scott full circle to the challenge ahead. Bioprinting and implanting a heart into a living creature is relatively easy… The hard part is to make sure the creature continues to be living after the bioprinted organ has been implanted. Achieving this will require a profound collection of expertise well beyond the skills of any one researcher. In that regard, Skylar-Scott returns to the Stanford research ecosystem which makes this project a possibility.

While he is the principal investigator on the project, the full team of ARPA-H-fundedRPA-H Stanford experts needed to make the dream a reality is remarkable in its depth and breadth (see below). It includes experts in engineering, biochemistry, computer modeling, cardiology, cardiothoracic surgery, biology, materials science, and more. Only Stanford concentrates leadership in all these disparate but interrelated fields within walking distance of one another.

Stanford is a real center of excellence for cardiovascular medicine, Skylar-Scott said – the Cardiovascular Institute, stem cell derivation expertise, and vascular experts to provide the raw materials combined with a great ecosystem of 3D bioprinting and materials faculty to think how to use and assemble the materials.

“When you have all these resources in one place, it makes it easier to collaborate and to do some pretty amazing things,” Skylar-Scott said.

The Stanford research team

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites and, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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