4 Reasons Why Bioprinting Could Transform Pharmaceutical Testing Forever


The pharmaceutical industry discovers, develops, produces, and markets pharmaceutical drugs with the aim of curing diseases and alleviating patient symptoms. In 2017, the global market for drug discovery technologies totaled US$54.7 billion and the industry is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.4% during 2017-2022 to reach a value of $85.8 billion USD by 2022. The value of this industry stems from the critical role of pharmaceuticals in western medicine. Pharmaceuticals have revolutionized modern medicine in a way that puts them at the centre of most medical treatment plans.

 Pharmaceutical drugs have the potential to save thousands of lives that would otherwise be lost without treatment; however, the drug discovery and development pathways can take over 10 years to complete and cost millions of dollars. The median cost of a clinical trial for a new drug that results in FDA approval is $19 million USD. Even after working to test a new drug for many years, about 95% of most new drug candidates fail in the final stages of clinical trials because of their negative health effects on humans. Thus, most pharmaceutical companies choose to test new drugs on animal models before moving to expensive human clinical trials. Unfortunately, animal models are not always effective because human physiology is significantly different from lab animals like mice and rats; what is effective in animals will not necessarily be effective in humans.

Growing human tissues in the lab has evolved into a viable alternative to using animal models for drug development because it allows for the mimicking of in vivo tissue architecture and multi-cell composition. In particular, the ability to produce detailed 3D models with human cells has become possible through the adoption of 3D bioprinters throughout the scientific community. Bioprinters work in a similar fashion to 3D printers in that they use additive manufacturing to create 3D structures of designs created on a computer. However, instead of using plastic or metal, bioprinters are used with hydrogels embedded with living cells to create 3-dimensional tissue constructs. This means that researchers can create a detailed 3D design of human tissue on a computer, and watch it come to life in real-time.  

Below are our top 4 reasons why bioprinting could transform pharmaceutical testing forever.

1. Precision

Bioprinting is an excellent tool for creating drug testing models due to its precision in spatial and temporal placement of living cells, proteins, DNA, growth factors, and other bioactive substances in order to guide tissue formation. Human tissues are highly complex structures with many different regions and cell types. Once the specific structure and regions are outlined in the computer design, bioprinters can precisely deposit material and different cell types to create a structure with much more detail than would be possible in traditional cell culture. The customizable placement of materials allows for specific tissue generation in order to test a drug’s efficacy on highly specialized tissue components as well as its effects on widespread tissues.

  2. No Need for Animal Testing

Animal models are typically used in the drug discovery and testing pathway because they provide an avenue to test the effects of novel drugs on living systems without having to recruit human subjects. Although the use of animal models is standard practice in pharmaceutical testing, many believe testing novel compounds on animals is no more ethical than on humans. To combat animal testing while still producing the necessary results of drug effects on living tissues, bioprinted 3D human tissue structures and other devices can be used. Bioprinted tissue constructs using hydrogels and living human cells create an opportunity to test for drug toxicity on living tissues without having to harm animals in the process. The living cells in the bioprinted structure react in the same way they would if they were inside an organism. This creates an opportunity to look at drug effects without having to harm animals. By reducing animal use in pharmaceutical testing, both money and lives can be saved.

3. Efficiency Like No Other 

Bioprinting is especially useful in pharmaceutical testing because it allows for drug toxicity screening on a scale which has never before been possible. The automated nature of bioprinting can print cells at a rate much faster than what a human can dispense manually. Harnessing the power of automation combined with the benefits of bioprinted cells can create drug screens that test a single drug thousands of times, or test hundreds of drugs at once, to collect much more data than what was possible before. Generating such large amounts of data can help researchers more accurately visualize the possible effects of drugs in a short amount of time which can both speed up the drug discovery process and reduce the associated costs. 

4. More Effective 3D-Cell Cultures

2D cell culture models have been used for pharmaceutical drug testing for a number of years, however they do not provide the same benefits as 3D cell models. 3D architecture has been shown to greatly impact the behavior and characteristics of cells and contribute to better mimicking of tissue behavior in the body. In 2D cell culture models, the single cell layer in culture flasks simply cannot provide these benefits.