Robyn Williams: This is The Science Show, where we are fond of bringing you an exciting shape of things to come. Well, the future has landed.
Where are we standing, Gordon?
Gordon Wallace: So we’re standing in TRICEP, it’s a translational research facility, a dedicated facility created by the University of Wollongong to facilitate the further development of fundamental discoveries in bioprinting into real commercially viable products.
Robyn Williams: Bioprinting, you mean 3D printing of body parts or parts thereof.
Gordon Wallace: Yes, so bioprinting means we are printing with living cells, usually, in order to regenerate body parts. So there is the ultimate goal of creating body parts on the bench, but right now we can create structures containing stem cells that facilitate regeneration of damaged parts.
Robyn Williams: Former New South Wales Scientist of the Year, Professor Gordon Wallace, in his lab, showing how their 3D printing is now using local produce from the fishing industry, meat works, and seaweed, to help fix damaged bodies. And now they are also exporting ears, and the means of printing them, to India.
Where do you get some of your materials? Is it true, from seaweeds and so on?
Gordon Wallace: Yes, we’ve had a real interest in the last five years of identifying primary sources of the materials that go into the bio-inks because those materials protect the cells during printing and then facilitate the development of those cells into the right type of tissue. Seaweed is one very interesting source of those molecules and we work with Dr Pia Winberg to extract those molecules from seaweed. And one particular application for that at the moment is in wound healing, a project that we’ve started with Professor Fiona Wood, using these magic molecules with the customised printer to facilitate skin regeneration.
Robyn Williams: Fiona Wood, the legend from Perth.
Gordon Wallace: The legend from Perth, yes.
Robyn Williams: Australian of the Year.
Gordon Wallace: What an amazing lady to work with, as is Pia of course, and when you are surrounded by all this enthusiasm and dynamic characters you can’t help but get enthused yourself and to deliver, and what is really big challenges. Fiona has described the state of the art at the moment. She says it’s not good enough, she wants to do better for her patients, and got incredibly excited about the whole idea of printing into wounds the appropriate bio-inks to facilitate skin regeneration.
Robyn Williams: And she is famous for spray-on skin and much else. But before we go and look at a couple of examples of what you’ve got, printing ears and printing maybe even parts of the heart or cornea, the eye, it seems to me quite interesting that here is a basis for local industry to be started and transformed in this area, the Illawarra, the smokestack, Port Kembla and all this, transferring to something that is high-tech.
Gordon Wallace: Absolutely, and what’s incredibly interesting and exciting is all the skills are here to do it, we just all collectively have to realise the opportunity, build the vision together and engage together to deliver that commercial opportunity. The sources of the materials through seaweed farming and other primary sources and even food processing…we’ve worked with Better Choice Fisheries here in Montague Street to get fish skin, extract collagen from that fish skin, we are printing those collagen structures for nerve and muscle regeneration. There are so many amazing opportunities that are going wasted at the moment, literally wasted, and we need to work with local industry to identify those and build a new industry around those.
Robyn Williams: Let’s walk over here to look at another demonstration because some of the news you’ve come out with in the last few weeks is that you are exporting some of this technology to India. How did that come about?
Gordon Wallace: Yes, that was an interesting happenstance, I guess. I’ve been working with Dr Payal Mukherjee at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for a number of years now on developing a printing system for a bioengineered ear, a living ear, to treat patients with microtia who were born with part or the whole ear missing.
Payal and I visited India as a part of an Australia–India Council project. We struck up a great relationship with the AMTZ, the MedTech Zone, and through discussions with them and with other clinicians in India it became obvious that they were interested in the living ear but they had an immediate need for prosthetic ears, prosthetic ears that could be generated on site, preferably at lower cost than at the moment, and delivered to patients that need them.
So microtia is five times more prevalent in India than it is in Australia, so there is a real need for this. So we came back and we started a parallel project to build a printer that could create 3D printed prosthetic ears and the scanning technology that went along with that.
So the first prototype of that printer was sent to India to our colleagues this week. That will be delivered there sometime in the next couple of days. We will continue to work with them to refine a 3D printer for prosthetic ears. And also included in that was a 3D bioprinter for printing structures with living cells where our Indian colleagues are interested in the development of 3D printed patches for cardiac regeneration.
Robyn Williams: Of course this is a university and you need to teach these things, and you’ve got a demonstration over here on my left which is quite small and rather elegant, where you can actually show students and train them in the use of this rather amazing technology.
Gordon Wallace: We built this research and training system based on many years of experience and developing customised printers. We put the best features of many printers into this 3D-ready, we call it, and it’s been developed through experiences with students who have learned on it. The students have actually helped us to develop the tutorials, test those tutorials, so we have a complete training package now. Like you say, the compact system, easy to use, easy to integrate in all of the steps learning how 3D bioprinting works.
Robyn Williams: I’ll just ask one of your colleagues over there. Your name please?
Cameron Angus: Cameron.
Robyn Williams: Corneas…can you actually print parts of corneas with this?
Cameron Angus: Parts of corneas have been printed on this machine. We’ve worked very closely with those research partners to meet their project needs, and yes, using a collagen-based material we’ve been able to print discs that are very much cornea-like.
Robyn Williams: On your eyeball…I mean, you print it out and you put it into the eye and the eye then repairs itself and you’ve got eyesight.
Cameron Angus: That would be the goal. These ones are going into eyes yet, there’s a lot more steps to go before we put anyone’s eye at risk.
Gordon Wallace: These particular collagens are bovine sourced. We are looking at sources of human collagen as well, but the collagen from fish may well work in this application. So we have parallel projects here, one looking at developing the optimised formulations for tissue regeneration, whether it to be the cornea or cardiac, and the other being developing those primary sources of materials, and then converging those so that eventually all of our applications…this is our vision, all of those applications will use materials that we can source here locally but also at other places around Australia. Then we have control over the quality of the material right from ground zero.
Robyn Williams: On what sort of scale can this be done? For instance, around the country in a few years time can you have major hospitals producing this so that it becomes part of the healthcare system?
Gordon Wallace: Yes, for particular applications that we are targeting, we are envisaging it will be implemented in the clinic in a handful of years time, for example, in skin regeneration, for some of the simple projects where we are printing into the eye, for wound healing in the eye, for example, also in cartilage regeneration and some other aspects around islet-cell transplantation.
But what we need to do is make sure we’ve got the complete supply chain in place. We need to be working with the seaweed farmers, with the fish producers, with the mushroom producers if necessary, in order to get the raw materials. We need to be able to demonstrate that that can be made at commercial scale, and that’s what we do here at TRICEP. And then we need to demonstrate that those formulations can be deployed in a clinical setting, and that’s why our team here is building customised printers to enable us to do that for each of the clinical challenges in front of us.
Robyn Williams: Yes, it’s quite interesting, I’ve actually got some product, presumably from either this lab or your association, when I went to get my teeth fixed. I thought normally when they take a picture of your teeth and a mould, they sent it off to the lab, but in fact there was a 3D printer in the corridor and she said it would be ready the following day, I couldn’t believe it.
Gordon Wallace: Yes, I think that dentists have really embraced 3D printing technology. And, as you know, we have state-of-the-art 3D polymers, ceramic and metal printers here that we use to develop our customised printers, but those printers are incredible in their own right.
Robyn Williams: A final question, and it might be a bit lateral for you, but the other day there was news about 3D printing an oesophagus, in other words your gullet. Obviously people get terrible cancers of the oesophagus for various reasons and they are often fatal. Is it feasible, in your opinion, to 3D-print an oesophagus?
Gordon Wallace: So it’s not a project area that we are engaged in moment, but if you think of the complexity of some of the things we are trying to print, then you would have to say that that other pursuit would be possible. A 3D printed cornea, for example, a complete bioengineered cornea is a very complex piece of tissue, arranging cells and biomaterials and extracellular matrix in a very complex way to get the performance that you need. I’m sure that printing any organ will have its own particular challenges, but yes, I wouldn’t say it’s not possible.
Robyn Williams: And that research on 3D-printing oesophageal stents comes from the University of South Australia. But I was with Professor Gordon Wallace, director of the Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science, University of Wollongong. New industries in the Illawarra.