3D Printing Accelerates Toxicity Testing with Nanomaterials

As a fan of nanotechnology innovation, it doesn’t take a lot of digging to find inspiration in new developments with potential for radical shifts in how we as a society meet our needs and wants. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, has captured my imagination, as a tool for safer technologies, more efficient manufacturing, resource conservation, and innovation. Combine these two technologies, and see how close the future really is.

Today’s focus is on bioprinting. Using magnetic nanoparticles, people are commercializing ways to build 3D cell systems for testing toxicity of substances to organs. Talk about high throughput screening! These systems can conduct thousands of tests to screen new drugs, chemicals, additives in systems that mimic human organs. Wait, they mimic human organs? With 3D printing, now researchers are able to “print” tissues in 3D – like your hip, or your liver. Can you imagine, on your next trip to Fatima, a new shop just outside the shrine custom printing anatomical models of ears and lungs made from 3D printing instead of mold injection? More seriously, by the time some of us need hip replacements, 3D printing will custom fit our new hips, with biocompatible materials. And, by then, our toxicology testing paradigm may be based on these alternative testing strategies using bioprinting to mimic systems biology.

That is the goal, anyway. If you’ve read my book, you know I assign less weight to in vitro, or cell based assays, as predictive toxicology tools, because they are models with limited ability to capture the complexity our bodies have. I’m all for screening methods that focus and prioritize further testing, as long as they are reliable as indicators of behavior. Standard cell culture assays study interactions at the cellular level, not the organ level, a critical piece to understanding the potential effects. These 20th century tests (back in the days of the first test tube baby, they were state of the art) were developed to screen drugs, and have been applied with some success to screening chemicals for toxicity. Part of the issue is the geometry. The cells form a layer in a petri dish (or more often now a microarray vial), which is very different than a 3D organ system. Now, we have the ability to create 3D models of our tissues, and this steps us firmly into the 21st century of toxicity testing innovation. Bioprinting is a real example of the power of converging (bio, nano and info) technology to advance us more quickly to developing safer and more sustainable products.

Stay tuned for more about these fascinating developments, including upcoming workshops to learn more about how advanced these techniques are for conducting risk assessments of nanomaterials. In the meantime, liver anyone?