The San Diego-based company Organovo is using their NovoGen MMX 3-D Bioprinter to create accurate representations of human cancer networks. Their research is important because it allows scientists to test out new cancer drugs in their targeted environment.

Typically, new cancer medications are first tested on animals, a process that is imperfect at best. What works well in mice for example, does not necessarily work well in humans. New treatments take around ten years of study in test tubes and laboratory mice before they are tested for human safety and effectiveness. After that, only one in five drugs ends up receiving FDA approval. The ability to test cancer drugs on bioprinted human cells could both speed up the process and make the resulting medications more effective.

"Animal models do not accurately represent human physiology, and the cell lines we use for research can't show us how cells act in a native, three-dimensional architecture," said Joseph Carroll, Ph.D., an associate director at the Knight Cancer Institute. "This technology will give us a much more realistic model for discovering and testing cancer drugs. By studying the molecular mechanics of a tumor at the systems level – how the cells interact with one another and in the cellular microenvironment around them – we can learn how they grow and spread, and we can learn how to stop these processes."

Organovo's bioprinting process starts with existing cancer cells taken from donated tumor samples or from specimens preserved in a tumor bank. Those cells are then encouraged to grow and replicate in the lab for a while. When Organovo researchers have enough of the cells (referred to as bio-ink) they use specialized software designed by AutoDesk along with their 3D printer to shape those cells into three-dimensional layers. Once printed, the cells grow into a network of living tissue. That tissue can then be studied, exposed to new cancer medications and examined.

You can view a short video describing Organovo's bioprinting process here:

Organovo is just one of several research centers using 3D bioprinting to create medical breakthroughs. Researchers at Wake Forest are working to print transplantable kidneys and scientists at Cornell University have created 3D printed spine inserts from stem cells.