In a significant breakthrough earlier this month, Avay Biosciences, a Chennai-based deep tech startup, launched their indigenous ‘state-of-the-art’ bio 3D printer that can print human tissues.
Called ‘Mito Plus’, the printer was launched during the Bengaluru Tech Summit held between 16 and 18 November 2022. But why is this an important milestone?
Before answering this question, it’s imperative to understand what bioprinting is. It’s a method of tissue replication that uses ‘bioinks’, which are engineered to print artificial living tissues like skin.
What are bioinks?
Speaking to The Better India, Manish Amin, CEO of Avay Biosciences, says, “Bioinks are gels or pastes which contain two key components — the cells for the type of tissue we are targeting, and biomaterial that can support the cells and aid their growth. Biomaterials like gelatin and collagen are made from natural sources like meat, bones and cartilage using chemical processing. They imitate the cell’s environment as it would have been within the body, and so are used as support structures (scaffolds) upon which cells grow and connect.”
In a recent release issued by Avay Biosciences, they note, “Bioinks are materials engineered to allow the specific type of cells to grow and multiply while supporting the tissue’s structure.”
They are broadly split into the following categories:
- Structural – These inks are used to create frameworks or supports for the structure.
- Sacrificial – These inks are aimed at supporting structures during the printing process but are later removed or consumed by the cells to be replaced by their own materials.
- Functional – These inks are used to guide a specific function like cellular growth, development and differentiation.
When we say Mito Plus prints human tissue, is it essentially making new human tissue? How much do these bioprinted tissues resemble human tissues in our body?
Manish notes, “Printing tissue currently means using bioinks — cells mixed in biomaterial — to create scaffolds. These live scaffolds are then incubated, providing the right environment and time for the cells to multiply and make connections resembling tissue. Researchers are still working on verifying that these complex scaffolds actually behave identically to real tissue. Identifying these differences would lead to huge steps forward in understanding and artificially growing entire organs — something that globally we are still aspiring to achieve.”
Evolution of the bio 3D printer
The first prototype of Mito Plus was installed at IISc, Bangalore. What we see today is the advanced version of the bio 3D printer developed with inputs on the prototype from the research lab of Dr Bikramjit Basu at the university.
Avay Biosciences provides completely indigenous development of both software and hardware for end-to-end bio 3D printing solutions in India.
“We originally built the Mito Basic prototype. Making this was easy, and it only took us about four months. A lot of college students today try making their own home-grown bioprinters. The challenge was moving from prototype to product. Can we fix all the software bugs? Will the printing happen repeatedly? Can we provide better quality parts and features?” asks Manish.
All this led to them expanding their design, manufacturing, electrical and software teams to build something that soon was far removed from the original version — a true bioprinter.
“There were many small improvements along the way — adding systems for temperature control, many trials of different UV bulbs and LEDs, and after many mistakes, we now have a system that is ready to launch in the market. Having said that, nothing is perfect. We will continue to resolve existing issues and develop new and innovative features that our customers keep asking for until our printer is the default for all tissue engineering research,” he adds.
Avay Biosciences has developed 3D printers in-house with around 70% of manufacturing undertaken in Chennai and Bengaluru. They have a dedicated software team focused on constantly adding new features and building better software.
‘State of the art’
“MITO plus is one of the most advanced bioprinters in its price range. A wide range of biomaterials can be printed with it. This printer will also have inbuilt UV curing options. The printer has HEPA filters and the major feature is the temperature control, where the printhead and the print bed can be cooled up to 4 degrees Celsius as well as heated up to 80 degrees Celsius. MITO plus can be used for pharmaceutical drug discovery and testing applications. It can also be used in cancer biology and cosmetology applications,” says Manish.
How do these features facilitate the process of bioprinting? Many biomaterials are quite temperature-sensitive and require precise environmental conditions.
“By controlling the extrusion temperature, the viscosity of the material can be controlled to an extent. We received this feedback from both our key collaborators Dr Bikramjit Basu on bone tissue development and Dr Prajakata Jain at the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), Mumbai, in skin tissue engineering. Hence, this is an important feature we wanted to develop,” explains Suhridh Sundaram, chief operating officer, Avay Biosciences.
“This allows the researchers to be able to adjust the printing parameters and fine-tune it for precise scaffolds. Some materials also cure (or harden) when exposed to UV light. Since these materials are gels, to achieve more layers we need such curing or else the bottom layers get compressed and do not maintain structural integrity,” he adds.
Bioprinting is a subset of the larger 3D printing market. While most 3D printing happens using plastics and such polymers, bioprinting works with live cells and gel-like polymer materials.
Bioprinters work in almost the exact same way as other 3D printers do with one major difference. Instead of delivering materials such as plastic, metal or powders, bioprinters deposit layers of biomaterials that may include living cells to build complex structures like skin tissue, liver tissue etc.
“3D bioprinting is a unique gift to humanity by science and technology. Although there are many challenges that are yet to be solved. There is still a long way to go before we can create fully functioning and viable organs for human transplant,” says Manish.
Simply put, the availability of cost-effective bioprinters is an essential step in developing artificial organs since all future research depends on this infrastructure. After all, thousands of lives are lost every year in India alone due to the lack of suitable organ donors. And even if a person is able to find one, transplants can cost more than Rs 10 lakh, not including the cost of anti-rejection drugs.
Suhridh explains “Our approach to the creation of entirely new organs begins with the journey of creating new tissue samples — a critical stepping stone for a very long-term and difficult journey. In collaboration with ICT Mumbai, we are working on having our printers develop skin — the most common type of layered tissue that could help victims of severe burns. These tissues can also be used for toxicology screens and various other testing mechanisms. People can contact us for more details on the research being conducted, and how we can help your mission.”
Meanwhile, Manis adds, “There are other applications. For pharmaceutical companies, to be able to test drugs on lab-grown tissue instead of facing regulatory hurdles of animal trials and human clinical trials would greatly accelerate our capability for research into new molecules, and identify risks much earlier on, thereby saving research costs that do not bear fruition.”
But how far is Avay from building a bio 3D printer device that can actually develop artificial organs and get rid of the need for organ transplants?
“Avay is very far indeed from artificial organs. There is a lot of research work that needs to be done. It is incredibly multidisciplinary and would involve help from tissue engineering researchers and material scientists to develop the best biomaterial scaffolds, stem cell and regenerative medicine practitioners and surgeons on the best way of implanting these organs, etc. We continuously take feedback from all these relevant parties and are working on the engineering as well as biomaterial side for now to give researchers the best solutions that can be imagined,” notes Manish.
Nonetheless, the startup is already partnering with premier research and development institutes across India including IIT Madras, ICT-Mumbai, National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education And Research (NIPER), Hyderabad, and BITS Pilani (Goa Campus) as customers and collaborators. In the private sector, leading the way in India are startups like Avay Biosciences.
After all, as per various reports, the global 3D bioprinting market is currently valued at USD 1.3 billion as of 2022 and is projected to reach USD 3.3 billion by 2027. There is a huge demand for it in both the pharmaceutical and cosmetology industries.
(You can learn more about Avay Biosciences on their website. All images courtesy Avay Biosciences.)
(Edited by Divya Sethu)
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