Imagine a world in which doctors send microscopic biological machines made by 3D printing—biobots—inside our bodies to heal disease and fix injuries.
A few decades ago, this kind of technology was only manifesting as the fanciful gadgets of science fiction movies. For example, the 1966 movie ‘Fantastic Voyage’ featured miniaturized objects performing a range of interesting functions inside the human body. Today, such biobots have become much more than science fiction. In many ways, what was previously envisioned in sci-fi movies has now become a reasonably expected future reality. In fact, functional biobot and stem cell-produced organ prototypes exist.
Recently, bioengineers and stem cell scientists started exploring possible biomedical applications of 3D printing, a key technology for making biobots and synthetic organs. They turned to 3D printers because of a unique combination of versatility and precision. 3D printers are exciting because they could in principle print a whole range of things, from minuscule machines that can crawl through your body to entire organs, neatly printed and stored. These are exciting possibilities but it’s not the time to be too optimistic yet. The current state of the field does not surmount the immense complexities of cell and tissue spatial dynamics required for actual biological function.
Dr. Takanori Takebe and Dr. Hideki Taniguchi from Yokohama City University in Japan recently reprogrammed iPSCs to take on properties of liver-like cells. While they succeeded in making functional tissue that performed the metabolic activities of livers, they couldn’t create anything on a scale that would replace human livers. Research still continues. While a few researchers have given up on the printing of stem cells as a lost cause, others persist and livers are one potential candidate organ for this application. Some bioengineers, however, are looking at 3D printers in entirely new perspectives for various other applications.
Consider, for instance, the ‘biobots’ developed by Rashid Bashir and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. These are small machines that consist of heart muscle cells on a hydrogel. What is cool about them is that they aren’t just muscle cells on gel. They can move! The primary foundation for developing these kinds of machines comes from stem cell biology. Organ printing, previously explored by other researchers, encouraged these bioengineers to look at the concept through an engineer’s eyes: to make cells not into organs that could be directly transplanted, but into machines that could ferry around these cells within the human system.
If these biobots succeed, then we could expect to see something really interesting in our future: Nano-scale machines that can enter your circulatory system and deliver raw materials for regeneration. The biobots could also be used for other applications within biomechanics that are not stem cell-related. These could be very powerful in the facilitation of wound healing, for example.
3-D printing is not just been the answer for producing objects such as children’s toys on a large scale but is increasingly being used in medicine including applications of stem cell technology. It’s an inventive idea to use 3-D printing for medicine as the technology was originally intended just for commercial manufacturing in fields such as automobiles. Now it can be used in healthcare and stem cell fields. This innovative thinking teaches us that we can learn and adopt from so many other fields, even those that seem so completely unrelated to our science! With 3D printing technology, while fully functional human livers and extremely fast biobots are not yet here, they are certainly possible.
Introduction: Hi, my name is Lakshmi Bharadwaj. I’m an undergraduate Biomedical Engineer with a tissue engineering specialization at University of California, Davis. I have a great love for science writing and blogging, especially in the field of stem cell biology. Currently, I’m interning under Dr. Knoepfler, reading and learning about the new advances in stem cell-based cellular and regenerative medicine. I also plan to write about topics such as biomechanics and biomedical prosthesis. Above is my first guest post.