Researchers are getting an unprecedented look at how cancer cells attack the human liver over time, thanks to the help of a 3D bioprinter.

Researchers at Organovo have been able to maintain viable liver cells created with a NovoGen MMX 3D Bioprinter in petri dishes for 40 days.

The standard is about 48 hours by creating the cells through conventional methods.

Organovo researchers were able to push that time period out to five days last Spring and have recently announced their ability to sustain them for over a month.

"The stable, liver-specific functionality of 3D Liver is consistent with our observations that other NovoGen bioprinted tissues become fully cellular, steady state, living tissues that persist over time," Organovo CEO Keith Murphy said. "Furthermore, the fact that these tissues demonstrate similar activity to native liver when presented with a known challenge drug is an encouraging indication of utility in drug development."

The San Diego-based Organovo designs and creates functional, three-dimensional human tissues for medical research and therapeutic applications.

The Company is collaborating with pharmaceutical and academic partners to develop human biological disease models in three dimensions. These 3D human tissues have the potential to accelerate the drug discovery process, enabling treatments to be developed faster and at lower cost.

The company's researchers are hoping bio-printing will eventually eliminate the animal testing stage for experimental drugs and fast forward them to experimenting on living human tissue.

Animal testing not only raises ethical questions, but the results are often tenuous at best. What works in mice, may not work in humans. Skipping that animal testing would also drastically speed up the process of bringing new drugs to market.

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.

"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 Dr. Joseph Carroll., an associate director at the Knight Cancer Institute. "This technology will give us a much more realistic model for discovering and testing cancer drugs."

Carroll continued, "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 with a 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.