14 January 2007

Cells, ink jets and organs

Yes, there are, obviously, some things that I have run across before that I take for granted as in the pipeline and that people discover later. That is the exact same problem I have with popular culture: by the time I even notice it, it is gone and yet there are folks that can tell me who did what to whom and when and why ad infinitum on such things. Luckily, I don't ask.

But, one of those things I ran across was at Dafydd ab Hugh's Big Lizards site and his post on using stem cells to create tissue. Well, this sounds advanced, but the technology for doing just this thing is something that Hewlett Packard started talking about in the late 1990's at various conferences. One of the benefits of going to both printing and science conferences is being able to see how the two cross each other, and HP is one of those that has been looking into this area for awhile. The technology they are looking at is ink jet printers. Back in the late 90's the sudden rise of the inkjet was due to getting more and more droplet holes into a cartridge, each of which could be separately controlled. Suddenly resolution went up and, via the magic of Moore's Law, price plummeted. Ink jet printers went from high-priced and unreliable to the status of french fries when buying a computer: "Would you like an ink-jet with that purchase?"

HP was one of the first to recognize that the actual drop size was going to get to something that was quite extraordinary: a clump of a few cells. As in a few individual cells. All of that R&D to get lots of people to buy super expensive ink cartridges so that they could get low endurance pictures from their cameraphones now was seen as a way of creating cell matrices. And since you could have multiple different ink... ummm.... cell types available, you could then *also* print out things like epithelial cells for blood vessel linings, bone cells, cartilage cells... the list was endless! Sweep the print head through, lower the entire cell array by a set distance, spray on the next layer.

Of course if you married that up with stem cell differentiation from a host body, you could then *print* organs that were biologically identical to that of the body the stem cells came from. There would be no rejection factors involved.

Now to scientists this was a *big deal* as their original goal to tinker with cells inside a body now turned to tinkering with them outside the body and to get them to survive being put into a transfer fluid or liquid gel and then show ability to continue working within the organ before transplant. The science necessary to determine the biochemical triggers for stem cell differentiation has been the #1 hot pursuit for years and this intensified that. Some of the outlooks are held behind pay-for subscriptions, but the results are starting to look very interesting.

From Materials Research Society: Fabricating Neural and Cardiomyogenic Stem Cell Structures by a Novel Rapid Prototyping -- the Inkjet Printing Method

From Wiley Interscience hosting of The Anatomical Record: Cell and organ printing 1: Protein and cell printers

From Annual Review Journals, the Annual Review of Medicine: TISSUE ENGINEERING: Current State and Prospects

From US Patent and Trademark Office: Patent 7,051,654 Ink-jet printing of viable cells

From Stonybrook University a paper (in powerpoint format) on Design Alternatives for Micropatterning of Macromolecules

From NC Nanotech Conference using nanotech scaffolding to build organs.

From PC World, The Print Shop.

This list goes on and on and on.... while some of the material is outdated, apparently, do note that when research gets to the actual materials creation and utilization stage you are in the patent zone. You do not want to give up any secrets just prior to filing and that one from 06 MAY 2006 may be the one that indicates that earlier work is now coming to the actual test production stage.

So, while many folks will go on and on about 'frankenfoods' and such, the major question is would you rather have protein from an animal or printed, on demand, to your liking from reliable cell stock that has no animal involved and only used the purest of ingredients? Because *that* could actually come first... although some cell types do reproduce easily, so things like skin transplants using your own cells could be a first and easy thing to get out the door. Using nanotech scaffolds that would be *printed* with cells dropped in place and then the whole thing kept alive via standard medical fluids... well... the future is coming very, very quickly.

And because the technology is known, the production processes are known the only unknown are the cell differentiation, keeping them alive, transfer system, scaffolding, and ensuring they work properly. No clones required! Yes, we could have all the technology to do this and *still* not understand the basics of how a stem cell differentiates into different cell lines and have *that* be the hold up. My guess is that if that proves the case, then a bit of genetic engineering may be necessary to just get a basic functional capability with any cell that can form a decent cell protein coat is all that will be needed. Over time one's own body will start to insert new stem cells in and replace the printed one.

How quickly science turns to mere engineering.

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