You would say: people live longer today. Indeed, medicine has improved dramatically over the last 100 years or so. On the flip side, however, this means that as we live longer, our organs tend to fail more, which leads to demand for organs transplants exceeding supply. To be precise, in the last 10 years, the number of patients requiring an organ has doubled, while the number of transplants hasn’t changed much. Each year, around 30,000 lives are saved thanks to organ donors in US, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. While this figure seems big, every 10 minutes one more person is wait-listed for transplant, and on average, 21 people die each day because they don’t get the organs in time.
Such health crisis has boosted development of regenerative medicine and, in particular, bioprinting (3-D printing of human tissues and organs). Imagine: next time you just order yourself a new ear, and it is printed in 30 minutes instead of being awaited for year!
Put simply, bioprinters look like large industrial printers, that instead of usual ink use a biological ink: a mixture consisting of human cells from biopsies or stem cells. 3-D printer is programmed to print different cell types into required prcise three-dimensional shapes. The idea behind it is that when placed in the body these will be able to blend with existing tissues or even substitute a deceased organ.
There are several bioprinting companies in US now, but the most prominent one is Organovo – startup, based in California, that has started getting attention to its work since 2011 and is now enjoying advantage of the first mover to address the critical unmet need.
Organovo’s long-term goal is to produce tissues from cells on demand for the doctors and, hence, remove the necessity to wait for a limited supply of donor transplants. Organovo has also built models of human kidneys, bone, cartilage, muscle, blood vessels and lung tissue. Organovo covers the U.S, Europe, and Asia markets, and works with 10 of the Top 25 global pharmaceutical companies, such as Merck, Roche, Janssen, Astellas and Bristol-Myers Squibb, alongside with partnering with Harvard and Yale universities. For now, its core value proposition remains recreating liver and kidney cells for the drug testing needs of large pharmaceutical companies. This innovation would help pharmaceutical companies to address gaps in 2D and animal models, but also significantly reduce the cost, predictability and speed of drug discovery. For example, while traditionally drug tests for toxicity can take months and cost $1 billion, Organovo liver cells tests can provide results within 7 days with considerable budget savings.
FUTURE: opportunities and challenges
Some sources claim that implementation of 3D-printed replacement tissue for the most important body organs might be available already as soon as in 10 years. And Organovo has a strong ambition (and potential) to be the first company to lead this breakthrough. Per the company’s estimates this new market could offer a huge opportunity of over $1 billion.
Another big opportunity for Organovo is expanding its operations into skin reproduction and partnering with cosmetics industry. First seeds in this direction have already been sown in 2013 when Organovo signed contract with l’Oreal. This partnership aims to turn current 3D printed skin prototype into actual 3D printed human skin, which could be used for commercial purposes. In fact, if successful, such partnership can open the door to other industries, reliant on the skin tissues (for example, targeting dermatology or skin cancer researchers).
Said that, there are still many obstacles ahead of the company right now. First is the adoption level. Organovo’s key competitors are traditional 2D cell cultures and animal models. Pharmaceutical companies are keen on using what they are familiar with and what they are trained for. Vast work needs to be done on education, explaining why 3D bioprinted tissues are better than any other currently available options. Given that safety is one of the top decision-making factors in this industry, Organovo needs to ensure relevant research support. Second restriction is regulations. To make its products available for the market, Organovo needs to get U S Food and Drug Administration approval for any new products, which sometimes can take decades. Since this area is so new, it is also difficult to predict whether some products could be banned in the future once more research is done in this area and any serious concerns are discovered.
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