3D bioprinter with lightning speed for disease models

ERC-grant for researcher Riccardo Levato

Researcher Riccardo Levato

Researchers at Utrecht University and UMCU are developing a 3D printer that can recreate a part of the human body, including living cells, within minutes. This makes it possible to make individual models of parts of a patient, for example to test medicines outside the body.  Riccardo Levato, researcher at Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht, received an ERC grant on September 3 for this.

A classic 3D printer is like a pastry chef making a cake layer after layer. The printer sprays a quick-drying plastic in a two-dimensional shape onto a surface, after which a second layer can be placed on top, and so on. After hours of stacking layers the result is there: from chess piece to Domtorentje. Medical scientists have also been trying to apply this classic layering method for years by printing prostheses or even entire organs. But although 3D printers can now handle body-friendly, flexible materials containing living cells, the layering principle - just like making a cream cake - remains a time-consuming process, in which the chance of survival of the cells is greatly reduced.


According to Riccardo Levato, researcher in Biofabrication and Regenerative Medicine, this will change. Together with colleagues from the technical university of Lausanne, he is working on volumetric bioprinting. With this technique, a printer does not build the 3D model in layers, but is created in a rotating container with a liquid gel that solidifies when it comes into contact with laser light. By exposing the container from different angles, a three-dimensional image is created in the gel. "That image, which looks like a hologram, becomes almost immediately hard. Not layer by layer," says Riccardo. 

Individual model

With this 3D printing method it is possible to print three-dimensional objects such as a heart valve, a piece of a thigh or a meniscus at lightning speed. The researchers can even add body’s own stem cells to the gel. This enables researchers to quickly and accurately recreate parts of a patient so that they can study biological processes outside the body. "We initially think in terms of individual models, so that we can learn more about a specific patient in case of illness," says Riccardo. With this groundbreaking technique, we are also one step closer to eventually printing entire organs, making kidney dialysis, for example, superfluous and making patients independent of donor organs. 

Although this technique is still under development, Riccardo's bioprinter is a gamechanger in the field of medical 3D printing. He received a start-up grant of 1.8 million euros from the European Research Council for the development of new 3D models to study diseases. This allows him to start his own research group and purchase advanced equipment.

Blood cells from the lab

Eventually, Riccardo hopes that his bioprinter will be able to make organic prosthetics from body material. "Thanks to the subsidy, we hope to have developed the technique to such an extent that a three-dimensional model of a bone, including bone marrow, rolls out of the printer. We want to print the model as true to nature as possible, including bone marrow cells that produce white and red blood cells," says Riccardo. "This will allow us to study certain diseases, such as leukaemias. With such a model, doctors can determine which therapy is best for an individual patient. "Many drugs are expensive and have side effects. With an accurate model, you can test such a treatment before you expose someone to it." An additional benefit is that it reduces the need for animal testing when developing and testing medicines.

Although Riccardo has only just started the project, he is already thinking about the next step. Now that it is possible to create individual models, the question is how complex they should be. He gets help from colleagues. "Is every anatomical detail important, or can we simplify it? Are all cells in a bone structure important to recreate if we want to study only one aspect? These are questions that we think about together with our biomedical colleagues. Together we develop the technique and define the frameworks. It is a multidisciplinary project, which is in line with the biomedical expertise of Utrecht University, the UMC Utrecht and the entire Utrecht Science Park".