BioPharma, Startups

This is how 3-D bioprinting companies are transforming drug development

The high costs of clinical trials could eventually make 3-D bioprinting a go-to technology for pharma and biotech, providing better data to spot toxicity early and helping the pharma industry avoid costly mistakes.

Organovo Bioprinter (50)

Let’s face it, cells generally like having company, forming communities with other cell types to make complete tissues. However, quite often, researchers isolate cells from their 3-D environments, creating 2-D models that don’t always replicate complex biology.

But now, an entire industry is emerging to recapitulate various tissues more realistically. 3-D bioprinting has the capacity to layer different cell types, creating more biologically accurate liver, kidney, skin and even tumor tissues. The hope is that more lifelike tissues will produce better scientific results.

Organovo is the leader in 3-D bioprinting at the moment. The publicly traded San Diego company has been selling 3-D liver tissue to pharma companies for about 18 months and is about to expand into kidney tissue. The goal is to support drug development by using these 3-D models to gauge toxicity.

“Kidney and liver toxicology studies are required for every product before it goes into humans,” said Brandon Couillard, a senior analyst at investment bank Jefferies.

The high costs of clinical trials could eventually make this a go-to technology for pharma and biotech, providing better data to spot toxicity early and avoid costly mistakes.

Merck is one of Organovo’s main customers. The company is also working with Bristol-Myers Squibb, Roche, Astrellas and the National Institutes of Health. The payoff could be big.

“For the applications that Organovo is focused on for printing tissues for toxicology testing and early stage pharmaceutical discovery and development, I think their addressable market is well over $3 billion,” said Couillard.

Organovo mostly prints tissues and tests drugs in its San Diego facility, giving the company complete control over the complicated bioprinting process. On the other end of the bioprinting spectrum, there’s Philadelphia-based BioBots.

BioBots takes a more distributed approach, selling bioprinters and consumables, such as bioinks for tissue printing, to labs all over the world. That company provides hardware, software and consumables. Individual labs – mostly academic ones– can toy with the technology as they see fit.

The company was founded by Daniel Cabrera and Ricardo Solorzano in a University of Pennsylvania dorm room. Cabrera was studying computer science and biology and was utterly bored by the repetitive nature of pipetting. The two realized that, with just a few keystrokes, they could automate the activity.

“I got excited because it was a digital fabrication tool,” said Cabrera, CEO of BioBots. “Instead of using your hands, you could sit down in front of a computer, type a few lines of code, and the robot would execute.”

Still based in Philadelphia, BioBots has launched a second-generation printer, just $10,000, and a variety of bio inks. But those are just starting points. Many labs have run with the technology.

“A lot of people have hacked the machines,” says Cabrera. “They’re using them with dozens of materials and different microfluidic technologies, creating super-complex tissues.”

While the 3-D bioprinting world is hardly crowded, there are a number of other companies in the mix. Japanese company Cyfuse Biomedical produces heart and other tissues using cell spheroids. Canadian startup Aspect Biosystems is providing 3-D tissues to support drug discovery.

But at this early stage, these companies may be competing less against each other than they are against existing animal and 2-D models.

“There’s a big workflow and infrastructure challenge for big companies that want to adopt this technology,” says Cabrera. “They’re heavily invested in 2-D workflow, and pushing into 3-D, the infrastructure just doesn’t exist.”

Photo: Organovo