Great strides are being made in bioprinting, and the end result could revolutionize pharmaceutical development and testing.
In the November  issue, The Medicine Maker discussed the far future of healthcare and drug development. From my perspective, the ideal future would give everybody access to healthcare, and would enable everybody to live a long, healthy life. Three-dimensional printing and artificial intelligence were two key technologies discussed last month, but another technology that will certainly have an important role in the future of medicine is bioprinting. The possibilities of bioprinting are potentially endless. My company specializes in “bioinks” and I like to tell people that, if you collected all of the tissues being printed by our customers, you’d almost be able to build an entire human body! Other companies are printing other tissues, such as cancer tumors, which can be useful in drug development.
Like most shifts in the industry, bioprinting will come to the forefront incrementally, rather than with a single big breakthrough. With each passing year, we gain more knowledge about how cells react and work with the latest bioprinting technology. With that data analysis, we can build better models, which help us further understand new areas, which help us build better models, and so on. Bioprinting is heading in a few different directions, with R&D groups and academic researchers wanting to experiment and play around with the possibilities. The next market step will be to break into specific industries. Toxicology and drug discovery are obvious areas where bioprinting could be a real benefit—think of how commercial drug development might change if companies could test candidate molecules in human models early on. And it could also affect personalized medicine.
Beyond that, the far future potential that we all have in our minds is organ transplants. There’s a great deal of research and technological evolution that needs to be done to reach that point, however, and we need a few champion institutions to help push it forward. With the current organ donor system, there will never be a surplus—rather there will always be a waiting list. And we can never unleash the potential for research institutes to test theories with human organs. Bioprinting could pave the way for human organs for transplant and research—eventually. The big questions then will revolve around regulation. The industry will be massive, but will it be controlled by a pharma patent perspective or by more general regulations? How do we decide who gets priority and when, if they’re widely available? It’s important for companies operating in the space to keep an open dialogue with regulatory bodies to make them aware of the various processes so these questions can be brought up and answered alongside the evolving technology.
It’s a very exciting stage for bioprinting right now—and it’s only going to get more exciting in the years to come. Currently, the industry and regulators are amassing a tremendous amount of fundamental knowledge and it won’t be long before smart decisions start being made. We need some good, solid, successful applications to move things forward. It has been the same with the 3D printing of metals and plastics—everybody knew that it could deliver fantastic benefits, but it has taken time for everyone to figure out how 3D-printed parts can be best used. We just need to decide how bioprinting can genuinely bring benefits to pharma development and patients.
Pam Cheng is Executive Vice President, Global Operations & Information Technology, at AstraZeneca, a United Kingdom–headquartered pharmaceutical company with more than 60,000 employees. In this role, she combines her expertise as an engineer with business savvy and seeks opportunities to lead her...
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