Benefits of Bioprinting in Pharma — Faster Testing & Cheaper Drugs

Published on 30 Sep, 2016

Bioprinting Technology Intelligence

Testing new drugs and therapies on 3D-printed human organs in a lab could reduce the time and costs of getting a new drug to market.

Clinical testing is a huge bone of contention for several large industries, not the least of which is pharmacological testing. For lack of a better medium, live subjects have always been used to check the efficacy and safety of drugs or substances undergoing clinical trials. 

All that could change however, with the advent of 3D-printed human tissues, also known as bioprinting.

What is Bioprinting?

Bioprinting is a 3D printing process to create natural human tissue and organs through layered deposition of cells, forming a mesh-like tissue structure.

Bioprinting organs involves using Bioink — a liquid suspension of living cells, nutrients, and other growth factors — loaded into cartridges (just like in a desktop printer) that feeds into specialized 3D printers. It can be used to “print” a desired shape (sometimes with the help of scaffold) that mimics native tissue in terms of structural organization functionality at the cellular level. Theoretically, it’d be possible to engineer complex (and complete) organs of sufficient quality to be viable for human clinical trials.

How Can 3D-printed Organs Help in Drug Clinical Trials?

3D-printed organs could be a viable alternative to using live humans in clinical trials.

Bioink comprised of human stem cells can be used to successfully create human tissue structures in a lab. That would allow researchers to form micro-tissues or micro-organs that could mimic the reactions of live human tissue to new drugs or chemicals.

Customized Bioink prepared using materials analogous to the patient’s characteristics, perhaps even derived from the patient’s own genetic profile, could allow medical technicians to recreate large organs with complex functionality. That could even allow manufacturers to create customized drugs, tailored to the exact needs of a specific patient.

In vitro applications for bioprinting in drug clinical trials could also include:

  • Testing the toxicity of drugs at a specific dosage
  • Measuring the metabolic effects on living tissue
  • Modeling diseases and simulating different treatment regimes
  • Safety and efficacy testing

Given how expensive and tine-intensive clinical trials are, large-scale 3D printing human tissues for pharmacological and biotech testing could prove far more prudent than existing long-drawn testing and approval processes.

How Much Could Bioprinting Affect Testing Timelines for New Drugs?

A new drug could be in the works for at least 12 years before it’s cleared for commercial sales.

Average Development Timeline for “New” Drugs

Clinical Trial Phase
Average Time Taken
Target Discovery Months
Validation of Target Months
Optimization Months
Pre-clinical Phase Months
Clinical Trial (Phase 0-4) ~10 years

Over that time, the average overhead that products accrue usually sum up to about $1.2 billion dollars, on account of research and development costs as well as other investments.

It isn’t uncommon for most pharma companies to drop up to 90% of their new products, simply because they don’t work out or show late-stage clinical failures. That leaves them with about 10% (or less) of what they started out with that move successfully from clinical trials to market.

3D-printed organs could help pharma companies shave years off of their R&D timelines.

Bioprinting could make a huge difference to the clinical testing process as a whole. Pharma companies could test the effects of compounds on human tissue from the get go; allowing them to spot issues early enough to avoid costly mistakes or spends on further research and development.

3D-printed human tissue and organs could easily replace the need for animal or human test subjects early on, allowing pharma companies to reduce the time and cost of testing new products in their drug discovery pipeline.

Will 3D-printed Organs Replace Humans in Clinical Trials?

While natural human organs and their finer functionalities are far too complex to grow in a lab using current technology, they’re not beyond the realm of possibility.

In fact, someone’s looking into it right now.

Animal testing has always been an ugly, albeit necessary part of the cosmetics industry.

Plenty of products such as deodorants, lipsticks, make-up, and other beauty products have been tested on animals for safety issues and side effects. Hoping to reduce their need for such animal testing, companies like L’Oreal are in the process of developing artificial skin for product testing.

3D-printed skin produced with bioink using bioprinting technology could substitute animals and humans in several cosmetics product trials. Bioprinting could not only automate the testing process, but also reduce the time and resources it takes to get a product through testing and on to market.

Statistical data indicates that the market size would be more than $10 billion by the end of 2020 for 3D printing in cosmetics and healthcare industry.

While it’s still a relatively new technology that’s still working out its kinks, there’s no denying that bioprinting is a viable alternative to existing long-drawn, inefficient, and costly product testing and certification protocols.

If pharma companies could fast-track their development and testing timelines without jeopardizing human lives, it’ll go a long way in developing essential drugs quicker and better suited to improving standards of treatment the world over.