In about two months, India will have its first dedicated centre for 3D bioprinting technology at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).
3D bioprinting is a rapidly growing field globally, with major applications in drug development, and perhaps even organ transplantation down the line.
The bioprinters use live cells printed over several layers to create close approximations of human tissues and even organs. But the technology is little known or accessible because the machines cost millions of rupees, and further require costly consumables and highly-skilled staff for operations and maintenance. Currently, isolated 3D bioprinters are available in India only at select research institutions like IITs.
It’s in this context that the IISc will set up its Centre of Excellence (CoE) in 3D bioprinting at its Centre for Biosystems Science and Engineering (BSSE). The CoE aims to advance the field overall by becoming a resource centre for researchers, biopharma companies, hospitals, etc.
Dr Kaushik Chatterjee, associate professor at BSSE, says, “We would like to have workshops with different stakeholders. Researchers from other universities can do pilot studies at the centre or even collaborate on a project if they have a partner at the IISc. Biopharma companies can see how drug testing can be done on printed tissue instead of animals.”
The CoE is being set up by IISc’s collaboration with the Sweden-based bioprinting solutions company CELLINK, which will provide two to three bioprinters to the CoE, each of which uses a different printing technology, at its own cost. The company will also give continued technical support and help the IISc facilitate workshops. “CELLINK will provide an Application Scientist who can guide IISc researchers in using bioprinters to explore applications like drug discovery, tissue engineering and personalised medicine,” says CEO Cecilia Edebo.
Drug testing is a major research area in 3D bioprinting now. “Many drugs that pass animal testing actually don’t work on humans. Also, the costs and rules are a barrier. Animal testing is completely banned in the case of many cosmetics as well. So testing drugs on bioprinted tissue such as skin layers can complement animal testing,” says Dr Chatterjee.
But even in the West, this is only an emerging research area in universities; biopharma companies and regulatory agencies are yet to catch up.
Dr Chatterjee says, “We would like the biopharma industry to engage with us early. As more companies use this technology for drug testing, regulators will also update their rules on accepting the test results.”
When it comes to organ transplants, some startups and educational institutions in India, too, are looking at bioprinted organs like corneas. However, this research is still in the very early stages and would require a lot of funding, trials and regulatory frameworks. But the possibilities would be huge in India, which sees a big gap between the requirement and donation of organs. “We will work with some hospitals on this. But the results will have to be first validated in small animals and then large ones, for example, using a bioprinted bone or nerve. Then it can be used in human trials. The technology has to mature in a safe manner,” says Chatterjee.