by Jennifer Maccani, PhD
This is part 1 of a 3-part article. This article is part of the "Emerging Biotechnology" series.
Imagine being a patient with heart failure, waiting on the heart transplant list, knowing that a new heart is the only chance for your survival. Although you know that gaining your new life rests on someone else’s loss, you can’t help but hope that you might somehow be able to get to the top of the transplant list in time. Even if you do, there’s no guarantee that your body won’t reject the new heart, or that you’ll be able to tolerate potentially dangerous immunosuppressive drugs. Nearly 25% of heart transplant recipients suffer from organ rejection in the first year after transplantation (1).
Now imagine that rather than waiting on the transplant list, your doctor could grow you a new heart and transplant it—without the harsh side effects of immunosuppressive drugs (2)—from your very own cells. That scenario may soon be a reality, thanks to a new technology called three-dimensional (3D) bioprinting. 3D bioprinting works like other types of 3D printing. Rather than depositing ink, 3D printers dispense materials such as plastic in consecutive layers according to a digital model to produce a three-dimensional structure (3). In this same vein, 3D bioprinters dispense spheres of cells—even, hopefully, a patient’s own cells—into a gel mold or scaffold to produce an organ or tissue (4).
With bioprinting technology, tissues could potentially be used for transplants or for research. Furthermore, bioprinting has initiated a paradigm shift that could reduce the current reliance on animal models in studies of human diseases and in preclinical pharmaceutical drug testing (4).
To get the best view of the future of modern medicine, it’s important to study the past. In the mid-1980s, a man named Charles “Chuck” W. Hall created the first 3D printer (5). This printer was based on stereolithography (5, 6), a technology that used ultraviolet light to harden a UV-sensitive photopolymer according to a design specified by a computer-aided design (CAD) file (5).
Today’s 3D printers commonly use one of two technologies: selective laser sintering (SLS), in which a laser is used to heat and fuse material together; or fused deposition modeling (FDM), in which a thermoplastic such as ABS plastic (an acronym that stands for the long name of the compound of which it is made, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) is heated and then deposited (5, 7). FDM was invented by Stratasys co-founders S. Scott Crump and Lisa H. Crump and patented by Stratasys, Ltd. (7), which used the technology in its first commercially available 3D printers (5, 7). MakerBot’s and RepRap’s 3D printers are also based on this type of additive manufacturing technology (5). With this technology, objects can be manufactured with interlocking parts and other features not previously possible with traditional manufacturing technologies (7, 8), and production is more cost-effective as well. By simply preparing a CAD file to design the object one wants to print, most anyone can become a creator and a manufacturer.
Enter Tyler Benster ’13 (Sc.B. Applied Mathematics and Economics) and Lucas Eggers ’13 (Sc.B. Physics), who started the company Azavy, Inc. (9) with the mission to create a decentralized, on-demand, and local manufacturing network of 3D printers to bring designers, makers, and consumers together.
“We’re entering an era where you can digitally describe something and then physically reproduce it,” Benster says from across the table of the Starbucks where we are conversing about 3D printing, Azavy, and, apparently, the future of manufacturing. There’s a reason his team won the student track in the Rhode Island Business Plan Competition this year (10); Benster, and Azavy, are on a mission, and Benster’s enthusiasm for 3D printing technology is infectious. “I describe this to my grandmother as ‘faxing for physical objects,’” Benster says. “What 3D printing is set to do is disrupt how we think of physical objects and how we create them. And it’s gonna have dramatic ramifications. Like the economists, I fully believe that we’re talking about the third industrial revolution here.”
Azavy was born in Providence in a time ripe for such revolution. Even with the Jewelry District transforming into the Knowledge District before its denizens’ very eyes, Benster believes the two monikers are not incompatible. “One of the reasons we’re excited to be in Providence is that Providence—and Rhode Island, really—has a rich history in manufacturing that has faltered in recent years and currently has a large concentration of design talent between RISD…CCRI…[and] New England Tech, and we see an opportunity to reinvent [the] local manufacturing sector by bringing some of these high tech manufacturing jobs that are starting more and more to be used with additive manufacturing, which is colloquially known as 3D printing,” Benster explains.
By creating a manufacturing network of 3D printers, designers, and consumers here in Rhode Island, Benster hopes that Azavy will allow its clients to order a product and have it produced in their community. “The money stays local,” Benster goes on, “it goes to someone in your area, and beyond that you are also more efficient because you don’t need to stock inventory… [and] if you’re printing on-demand, it doesn’t cost you anything more to change the design slightly.” Benster is currently working with Governor Chaffee ‘75, he says, to bring about these changes, starting with attempts to bring a Manufacturing Innovation Institute to Rhode Island through President Obama’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation Program.