£1m funding boosts prospects for 3D-printed organ tissue

Researchers developing 3D-printed living tissue that could help doctors repair damaged organs have received £1m of investment to commercialise the technology.

Oxford University spinout firm OxSyBio has created a 3D printer that produces materials mimicking organ tissues, paving the way for better ways to test drugs and, eventually, structures for use in surgical repair.

The company now plans to include living cells in the tissue-like materials and to refine the printer so it can produce even more complex structures, enabling the creation of living tissue samples.

Prof Hagan Bayley, who leads the group behind the research, said their method of inserting living cells into membrane-covered water droplets, which are then printed to create a three-dimensional structure, would give them an advantage over other efforts to create similar technology.

‘We believe this protects the cells during printing,’ he told The Engineer. ‘Some printing technologies are quite hard on the cells.’

The droplet material can self-assemble into more complex structures.

Part of the challenge is to shrink the print head and adjust its pressure in order to produce smaller droplets – from the current 50 microns down to 10 microns – to create the more complex, high-resolution structures that needed to produce living tissue samples

‘If you want to print something over 100 microns in thickness, the central cells have a hard time getting oxygen and nutrients and getting rid of waste products,’ said Bayley.

‘So you either have to print cells that will generate blood vessels within the tissue or print within some matrix that could be used to get nutrients and oxygen through to inner cells.’

Another issue is increasing the speed of the printer, a particular priority if OxSyBio is to reach its short-term goal of producing “organoids” – tissue samples used as test beds for new drugs – which would be needed in larger quantities than tissue samples made for individual operations from the patients’ own cells.

One solution may be to use multiple printer heads to complete a sample, or to use separate printers to create different parts of the final product.

Technology investment firm IP Group has awarded OxSyBio £1m to continue its work towards a long-term goal of producing hybrid structures that include both living tissue and tissue-like materials to repair damaged organs.

Bayley, who also founded molecular analysis firm Oxford Nanopore Technologies, said he took the counter-intuitive step of seeking private investment rather than navigating the bureaucracy of research-council funding in order to access money more quickly.

‘It’s hard to get research-council or charity funding for speculative project,’ he said. ‘What I wanted to do is get this moving more quickly and a little bit more on my own terms.’