Had bioprinting been around in Vincent van Gogh's day, he would have had to do something more dramatic to express his inner torment than cutting off his ear – American startup BioBots has been demonstrating that he could have easily just 3D-printed a new one.
Building living tissues nearly from scratch isn't a brand new science. Researchers have used lab animals as hosts to grow functioning organs for people in need of transplants and yes, even human ears. Even 3D printing artificial biological material has been around for a few years, using experimental "bio-inks" and designs for printable skin grafts, just for starters.
BioBots seeks to combine the ability of high-end tissue fabrication – which often requires large, expensive machines running into the US$100,000 range that require technicians to operate – with the ethos of the maker movement and more inexpensive desktop 3D printing equipment.
The project began in the dorms of the University of Pennsylvania last year and quickly moved to the DreamIt Health Accelerator in Philadelphia last fall, before winning awards at South By Southwest and TechCrunch Disrupt in the past few months.
In the below video from DreamIt's demo day, co-founder Danny Cabrera demonstrates how BioBots works. It uses a cartridge technology similar to that of inkjet printers, capable of building up tissues at a resolution of 100 micrometers. That tissue is then rapidly cured using a special blue light that does not damage the cells. The result is a printed ear that van Gogh himself could have used.
This early system sold for just $5,000 to beta version adopters that are providing feedback for the development of the final version.
The key part of BioBots is in the biomaterial that comes in the interchangeable cartridges, which Cabrera says will sell for $700 each and have a month-long shelf life.
The biomaterial consists of three powders which must be mixed with a fourth binding factor powder, along with whatever type of living cells the user wants to print. All this is mixed together and put into the device which then pushes it through a syringe onto a tissue culture dish in the build area where the blue light is applied.
The BioBots team members aren't aiming for attachable ears or fully transplantable organs to start. Rather, they see the machine as enabling pharmaceutical and medical testing, especially in nations where animal testing is banned – researchers could easily print the tissues they need to conduct their tests instead.
The second-generation version of BioBots, which is currently available for pre-order, sells for $25,000.