July 29, 2020

Why researchers are printing tiny organs to fight Covid-19

Daily Briefing

    While researchers for a while have been experimenting with how 3-D bioprinting could help address a variety of diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, they are now exploring how it could help treat Covid-19 as well, Ellen Rosen reports for the New York Times.

    Cheat sheet: 3D printing in health care

    Using tiny organs to test new treatments

    According to Rosen, Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and colleagues are working to 3-D print thousands of replicas of human organs, or organoids, to test potential treatments for Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

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    The team started by using a pipette to build by hand small organoids of human lungs and colons, which are often affected by the coronavirus, Rosen reports. But amid the global coronavirus pandemic, the team has since turned to 3-D printing to create thousands of the miniature organoids per hour, Atala said. The researchers send the organoids, some of which are "as small as a pinhead," to a biosafety lab at George Mason University to be used in testing potential treatments.

    The team at Wake Forest also has partnered with the technology company Oracle to analyze data collected from the organoids via an artificial intelligence system commonly referred to "as the body-on-a-chip system," Rosen reports. According to Rosen, the project involves printing the organoids onto a microchip, which "can be the size of a nickel or quarter" and able to "hold 10 to 12 miniature organs." The microchips collect and report data from the organoids regarding drug toxicity and efficacy, Rosen reports.

    Why bioprinting?

    According to Atala, using the organoids allows researchers to test possible treatments "without the noise" of a patient's metabolism, which in turns gives researchers access to valuable data that may not emerge during clinical trials.

    For instance, Rosen reports that Rezulin, a diabetes drug, was recalled in 2000 after reports that the medication could cause liver failure. When Atala's lab later tested an archived version of the drug on his team's constructed tissues, they discovered signs of liver toxicity within two weeks.

    According to Rosen, the difference between tests on bioprinted tissues and human clinical trials is that, in the bioprinting trials, "[a]n organoid replicates an organ in its purest form," and that can sometimes allow data to emerge more quickly. However, Atala noted that testing on these bioprinted tissues should be done in addition to—and not instead of—regular clinical trials.

    Testing on bioprinted tissues also can help researchers advance potential treatments faster, Rosen reports.

    "The 3-D models can circumvent animal testing and make the pathway stronger from the lab to the clinic," said Akhilesh Gaharwar, director of a lab in the biomedical engineering department at Texas A&M University.

    'Seems like science fiction'

    Rosen reports that bioprinting research "is still years away" from constructing tissues or organs that could be used in humans, though that's many of the scientists' goal.

    "Even to us it sometimes seems like science fiction," Gaharwar said.

    Atala—who previously created tiny organoids to test treatments for other viruses, including the Zika virus—said he "never thought [his team would] be considering this for a pandemic." However, he stressed the utility of bioprinting for helping to combat both emerging and long-fought diseases.

    Rebecca Laborde, master principal scientist in Oracle's health sciences division, told Rosen that the company "work[s] a lot with researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and biotech companies, and we are trying to seed advances as quickly as possible, analyze data, and develop new drugs." Laborde added, "This is the most exciting project I've worked on in a long time" (Rosen, New York Times, 7/27).

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