Written By David Hutt Via SEA-Globe.com
Fifteen years ago, the bioengineer Thomas Boland was sat in his lab at Clemson University, South Carolina, staring at an old Lexmark inkjet printer. He had a thought: the size of a typical human cell is roughly 25 micrometres – a micrometre is one thousandth of a millimetre – as is the size of a typical inkjet printer’s nozzle. Emptying the ink cartridge and filling it with collagen, he then glued black silicon onto a sheet of paper, typed his name into a Word document and hit ‘print’. A new technology was born: bioprinting.
Before the year was out, Boland and his team had printed E coli bacteria and larger animal cells. Three years later, he applied for the first patent on the technology to print living cells. The biological printouts, however, were only two-dimensional. At about the same time, other engineers began experimenting with 3D printers, which had been developed in the 1980s, to construct teeth, bones and prosthetic limbs. Boland altered his printers, and soon he was printing 3D cells layer upon layer. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, bioprinting’s possibilities are becoming greater by the month. It is now possible to print blood vessels, lymph nodes, skin and hair. In the foreseeable future, it might be possible to print functioning organs for transplant into humans. Although the technology’s developments and breakthroughs have largely been made in Europe and the US, there is increasing confidence that Singapore can also stake a claim.
According to Mike Goh, senior assistant director at the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing (SC3DP), the development of bioprinting is intertwined with the growth of 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, as it is called by those in the industry. While traditional 3D printers construct objects made of plastics, metal and wax, modern bioprinters employ similar processes but instead use biological materials such as cells, bacteria and proteins.
“Singapore’s 3D-printing capabilities are comparable to the developed countries, as our government has been investing heavily in this area,” said Goh. “SC3DP has one of the best-equipped labs in the world [for 3D printing] and has been attracting leading researchers to the centre… We can make Singapore a leading centre for 3D printing in the world.”