Total Pageviews

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Building Body Parts With Software

Good news: Maybe people are not so different from machines after all.

On Tuesday a small company in San Diego called Organovo Holdings, which already makes human tissue on a small scale, announced a partnership with Autodesk to design a bioprinting platform.

The idea is to use some of the Autodesk software now used for the design and manufacture of inanimate objects like light fixtures or kitchen appliances for the construction of living tissue, and, eventually, organs.

If living organs can be made the same way we can now make, say, flower pots and aircraft parts, using three-dimensional printers, the cost of medicine may drop while its capabilities improve.

“Right now we can create a 3-D liver slice by telling a ‘printer' where to put cells,” said Keith Murphy, the chief executive officer at Organovo. “We can create something less than a millimeter thick, which we put in a dish for drug studies. Longer term, the question is, can we make an entire liver?”

That is a more complex process, which would involve the precise placement of cells to make both the organ material and things like veins and capillaries, while keeping the whole thing alive. That is likely many years away, Mr. Murphy said.

It would also be a far more ambitious task than other efforts at building organs, like the manufacture of an adult trachea using stem cells over a sterile plastic tube as surgeons in Baltimore did.

A nearer-term project involves making liver cell assay plates, so scientists can readily test things like varying drug dosages, and the creation of tissue for surgical trials. In both cases, Organovo will need to produce significant amounts of material from its printers.

Mr. Murphy said working with Autodesk, which has done a lot of work in 3-D printers, will give his company a bet ter understanding of how to make 3-D software, including how Organovo and others can better design 3-D tissues.

Autodesk, in turn, is looking to simulate how nonliving 3-D objects are created so it can improve its core business.

“If you design a car chassis, the design stays the same,” said Carlos Olguin, who runs the Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter Group at Autodesk. “Biological printing involves the self-assembly of things like stem cells. It's a different design paradigm that could have a big effect on things like massive prototyping.”

“As biology becomes a more mature engineering discipline, we want to have a lot more partners,” he said. Neither company is paying the other, and two teams of about four people each will work together on the project in what Mr. Olguin called “the first phase.”