SolidWorld – On the road to bioprinting body parts and less testing on animals
The Electrospider 3D Bioprinter combines high-end robotics with multiple bioprinting techniques and innovative software, to deliver a machine capable of moving the industry towards the goal of generating truly useful human tissue-constructs and, eventually, organ substitutes.
Aurora de Acutis and her team at Pisa University’s E.Piaggio Research Center came up with (and patented) the idea of mounting different bioprinting heads on a delta robot. This type of robot (watch video to see one at work) is well-known for its ability to move its “end-effector” around at high speed with an accuracy far beyond pinpoint. Multiple bioprinting heads can therefore be mounted on the end-effector and used simultaneously to print the different components of living tissues, which gives the Electrospider machine its edge.
In addition, the remoteness – in a delta robot’s design – of the electric motors from the end effector gives the printing heads a range of action not limited by the strong electromagnetic field required for electrospinning (a crucial, structure-creating technique), which would otherwise interfere with the correct functioning of the motors.
The principal effects of these characteristics are:
- The combination of multiple bioprinting techniques greatly simplifies the production of living tissue-constructs, which normally requires a multiple-step process of creating scaffolds onto which the hydrogels are extruded.
- This combination also allows the production of multiscale and multi-material constructs that better replicate the morphological and functional characteristics of human tissue
- The volume in which tissue can be printed is vastly increased, from the few hundred cm3 prevalent among competing offerings to over 80,000 cm3.
“1” means that a single machine is used where other offerings need to use two or more, thereby reducing contamination risks as well as acquisition/maintenance costs
“2” and “3” together mean greater complexity can be achieved more quickly, with a high degree of repeatability and precision, while “3” means that:
- the machine has the volumetric capacity to handle any human organ and most human bones
- more small tissue-constructs can be printed at once, speeding up the process for drug-testing or tumour therapy selection
Electrospider’s superior functionality can already deliver significant benefits for researchers and testers, while new bio-materials are being developed that will begin to unlock the regenerative medicine potential.
Repeatability, which Electrospider excels at, is a very important feature in research, as scientists need to be sure that their tests and observations are not being skewed by differences between the tissue samples they are using. In addition the combination of hardware and software in one “ecosystem” allows for integrated management of the bioprinting process, from concept to implementation.
These major steps forward should, by themselves, raise the likelihood of large-scale adoption by the drugs and cosmetics industries, which would carry the obvious benefits of a reduction in animal testing requirements (a stated aim of many regulators worldwide), not to mention eventual reductions in human testing.
The quality of bio-materials, which are the fluids that carry the human cells in the bioprinting process, remains something of a bottleneck on the way to the holy grail of properly vascularized structures. That said, Pisa University research teams have been making significant progress in developing the fluids for creating bone and tendon tissues, which are, by themselves, areas with enormous potential.
It is also important to note that the patenting of “bio-inks” could unlock the lucrative consumables market for SolidWorld. Not to mention the fact that the availability of a higher quality machine, capable of handling larger structures, should spur researchers and bio-ink producers to redouble their efforts to develop ever more sophisticated materials, potentially driving more demand for the machine itself.
M&A and adoption of the technology by a household name provide are signs that bioprinting is moving into the mainstream.
Leading specialist 3D printer supplier Stratasys (SolidWorld distributes it machines), signed a partnership earlier this year with Israeli company Collplant, a deal that Stratasys’s CEO said will “enable us to accelerate the industrialization of bioprinting for regenerative medicine”. Also in 2023, Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk has struck a deal potentially worth hundreds of millions with Vancouver-based Aspect Biosystems. Aspect will grant the Danes an exclusive license to use its bioprinting technology to produce implantable insulin-producing cells in diabetics; a major statement by the undisputed leader in the treatment of this disease.
Past deals include the acquisition of Allevi by the US’s 3D Systems, a distribution agreement with Marubeni struck by Japanese bioprinter manufacturer Cyfuse, and a strategic agreement between Lyon university spin-off Poietis and L’Oreal for cosmetics testing.
In the luxury goods industry, Gucci has been active in funding research to bioprint animal skin tissue, in order to be able to repair flawed hides and thereby reduce wastage.
Electrospider is very much a dial-moving component of the SolidWorld equity story, with validation by customers set to be the next step.
Bio3DPrinting, which holds the worldwide patents for Electrospider (and is chaired by de Acutis), is 51% owned by SolidWorld, and currently has the capacity to manufacture 12 Machines, sold at €500,000 apiece (plus maintenance contracts and consumables) per year. This means that Bio3D printing could very soon represent around 10% of annual group sales. More importantly, SolidWorld shares’ low teens EV/EBITDA multiple, which already seems more than reasonable for an IP-rich 3D manufacturing software VAR (more on this in our previous post), is not the sort of price tag one would normally expect to see attached to an opportunity of this nature in the healthcare sector.
One machine has been sold, and will be delivered shortly to a leading medical research centre in Northern Italy. The Company also talks of advanced negotiations with other organizations, including a hospital in the USA. As research projects get going, one would expect these institutions to be keen to trumpet their achievements using their new equipment, providing new impetus both to the adoption of Electrospider and to the SolidWorld investment case.
In sum, a business with a potentially game-changing medical breakthrough, priced like a run-of-the-mill systems integrator
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