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3D bioprinters turn out liverlike tissues and 'biochips' in Japan

US, EU and Chinese startups also in race to revolutionize medicine

Japan's Ricoh is using proprietary 3D bioprinting technology to develop chips that store human cells. (Photo by Tomoki Mera)

TOKYO -- Japanese companies are breaking into three-dimensional bioprinting, creating artificial tissues, chips that store genetic information and man-made blood vessels to replace shunts used in dialysis.

Ricoh, a leading Japanese maker of office automation equipment, is set to release human cell-infused chips by spring. Meanwhile JSR, a Tokyo-based synthetic rubber maker, has joined with a Canadian company to develop a liverlike tissue that can be used to test the toxicity of drugs.

Elsewhere, companies moving closer to commercializing bioprinted human organs.

The global market for 3D bioprinters, which cost anywhere from several million yen to tens of millions of yen (tens of thousands of dollars to several hundreds of thousands of dollars), is growing steadily. It is forecast to reach $1.33 billion in 2022, up more than three times from 2016, according to American research company MarketsandMarkets.

In a research center in Kawasaki, just southwest of Tokyo, Ricoh operates its proprietary 3D bioprinter. The printer is producing chips used to assess the safety of new drugs, said Nobuhiro Genma, general manager of Ricoh's Healthcare Business Group.

Eventually, he added, its experience with the chips will springboard Ricoh toward fabricating complicated human tissues.

To make the chips, Ricoh cultivates and breeds cells from patients. The cells are mixed with a fluid and pushed from the head of the printer into holes aligned on chips.

Pharmaceutical companies can use these chips to match patients with drugs that are under development that could help them. Ricoh aims to improve the efficacy of clinical drug trials with this additional level of screening.

Next spring the company will launch businesses that will use its proprietary bioprinter to assess drug safety; it projects sales at 20 billion yen ($189 million) for fiscal 2025. The first of these businesses will open in the U.S. next spring and in Japan in the spring of 2021.

A 3D bioprinter at Ricoh's factory outside of Tokyo.

While 3D printers squeeze resins or metals into 3D objects, 3D bioprinters fabricate human tissues.

Pharmaceutical companies and research institutes began experimenting with 3D bioprinters earlier this decade. Now companies are being formed specifically to use them in the development of drugs and production of artificial organs.

In 2018, synthetic rubber-maker JSR joined with Canada's Aspect Biosystems, a 3D bioprinting pioneer, to produce a liverlike tissue. The fabricated tissue can be used to examine whether toxicants contained in drugs can be discharged from the human body.

JSR's technology produces resins and other materials at the molecular level. The company has been promoting a variety of R&D programs in cooperation with Keio University in a bid to bring its alchemy to the medical field.

Many companies are paying attention to the role of 3D bioprinters in the assessment of drugs. For example, Johnson & Johnson of the U.S. has launched a joint study with Canada’s Aspect.

It costs an estimated 100 billion yen to develop a drug due to clinical testing and many other challenges. But fabricated human tissues can greatly lower this bill by replacing animal experiments, reducing the risk that a project will be called off when clinical testing on human patients goes awry.

3D bioprinting is likely to be used to build artificial organs as well. In September, Cyfuse Biomedical, a Tokyo-based company funded by Fujifilm and other collaborators, will launch clinical studies of artificial blood vessels in cooperation with Saga University and others. "We will offer them on a commercial basis in the first half of the 2020s," Cyfuse CEO Shizuka Akieda said.

The bioprinted blood vessels are to replace shunts for dialysis that occasionally clog and fail to work properly.

Cyfuse creates clusters of cells by pushing cells onto a pinholderlike base that coaxes them into bonding within a few days. Utilizing the nature of cells, which tend to stick to each other, blood vessels made by Cyfuse do not require an adhesive agent. They are expected to help cardiac bypass surgeries and other procedures run more smoothly.

As the bioprinting tries to revolutionize medicine, it is tackling the equally daunting task of bringing down its own costs. Before 3D bioprinters can go into widespread use, they will have to come down in price. Startups and other businesses in the U.S., Europe and China are taking cracks at this.

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