At first glance, the r3bEL bioprinter from SE3D looks like any other 3D printer. It has the same basic design and a movable nozzle to deposit materials layer by layer. But instead of laying down, say, plastics, r3bEL prints living organisms: algae, bacteria, and even plant or animal cells.
SE3D, a three-year-old company in Santa Clara, Calif., sells its bioprinters to high schools and universities for science projects and experiments. The technology is not new; it’s already used in life sciences fields such as biotech and biomedicine. But the company’s founder, Maya Lim, says she felt it was important to give students access to such tools so they could engage hands-on with biology. Lim spoke about her venture in April at an IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference virtual event on disruptive technologies.
The company has brought its printers to classrooms, thanks in part to a grant of nearly US $900,000 from the U.S. National Science Foundation. A r3bEL is roughly the size of a traditional 3D printer—35 centimeters wide by 35 cm long by 38 cm high—and sells for about $4,000. Schools can order custom kits that include algae, bacteria, and cells—the printing materials—as well as a curriculum with lab experiments for students to learn about topics including biotechnology and tissue engineering.
HOW IT WORKS
With the r3bEL, students can print bacteria in a petri dish to test antibiotics, for example, based on lesson plans in SE3D’s curriculum. The printer keeps the bacteria in a precise volume of encapsulated gel, unlike current school experiments that grow bacteria on agar plates. Students can print hundreds of identical cultures in precise positions on the dish—useful for repeating experiments on the same organisms to observe how they react to different stimuli.
Like other 3D printers, the r3bEL relies on computer-aided design (CAD) software. With the software, students can print complex biological structures by combining the living organisms, and they can precisely replicate the same structure as many times as they need to. One experiment involves exposing the same algae cultures to different light wavelengths and intensities to determine how the exposures affect photosynthesis.
The focus of the curriculum is for students to understand how cells grow and respond in different environments. Students design simple experiments to prompt changes in cell behavior.
Students can go beyond the curriculum to develop their own projects, according to Lim.
For example, in California, a pair of students from high schools in San Jose and Fremont teamed up for a project at the Synopsys Alameda County Science and Engineering Fair in the biochemistry, microbiology, and molecular biology category. Their project used the bioprinter to mimic the formation of biofilms, which are coatings generated by bacterial colonies to protect themselves from drugs and other organisms. The project, which compared the effects of different antimicrobial solutions, could provide insight into antibiotics resistance. The students’ project won first place.
At Conrad Weiser High School, in Robesonia, Pa., a student is using the bioprinter to explore possible uses of bioglass—a flexible glass that cells can grow on—for repairing torn ligaments in humans. Another student is applying the printer to study new ways to diagnose celiac disease. At Winchester Thurston School, in Pittsburgh, a student is using the printer to experiment with drug delivery using dye molecules in varying concentrations as a stand-in for actual drugs.
To help raise money for schools that cannot afford the printers, the company is launching a campaign on the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo.
Educational institutions aren’t the only ones interested in the bioprinter. Makerspaces are too. Found at public libraries and community centers, makerspaces encourage people to dream up ideas and see them through. The spaces often are equipped with 3D printers, so perhaps it’s natural that some of them would be interested in the bioprinters as well.
The potential for bioprinting is endless, Lim says. “The holy grail is that one day we’ll print organs,” she says, adding, “We need to prepare students for more advanced laboratory work and skills that are relevant to their future careers.”
This article appears in the September 2017 print issue as “Printing Your Own Live Organisms.”