Danny Cabrera has been defying the odds all his life. When he was a 10-year-old living in Cuba, Cabrera's family had dreams of immigrating to America. His father won a visa lottery to travel to the U.S., and the Cabreras set sail for Miami and soon settled in.
As an 18-year-old at Miami Dade College, he had Ivy League ambitions. So he applied to the University of Pennsylvania and was accepted as a double major in computer science and biology.
At Penn, he wanted to find a way to manipulate biology and build living things from scratch. He soon met Ricardo Solorzano, another biology major from Miami, and the two got to work building a 3-D bioprinter.
Now, Cabrera and Solorzano are the co-founders of BioBots, a startup that creates desktop 3-D printers that can produce living tissue. The entrepreneurs used existing 3-D printing components that were primarily meant for manufacturing plastics and metals and used them to build a bioprinter. The result is a bioprinter far less expensive than most of its competitors: At $10,000, BioBots products are accessible to labs that can't afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars 3-D printers usually cost. And while most bioprinters can take up entire rooms and have many moving parts, BioBots builds machines about the size of a microwave.
"Imagine a world where scientists could design living things with their laptops and print them on their desktops," says Cabrera. "That's what got us really going."
Many of BioBots's customers have been looking to do just that. The company's client list includes tissue and material scientists at Stanford, Harvard, and the prestigious Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. So far, the scientists have used the printers to produce heart and lung tissue, as well as cartilage and bone.
BioBots's printing process starts with a software-generated three-dimensional design of, say, an ear or a heart valve. The printers use three different powders as "ink," which are then combined with cells from whatever tissue is being reproduced. A binding solution is added. Then the printer pushes the mixture through a syringe into the commanded shape. Blue light is shined onto the mold to harden it.
Cabrera and Solorzano created their first model in an apartment above a bar just outside Penn's Philadelphia campus. It worked well enough to get them accepted into the city's Dreamit Health accelerator program, where they secured $50,000 in funding and met a handful of business advisers. After refining their prototype in early 2015, they landed $1.5 million in seed funding. The first batch of the BioBot 1 was shipped beginning this January, and BioBots has now sold to around 100 customers in over a dozen countries.
While the eventual goal for BioBots--and for the bioprinting industry as a whole--is to produce fully functioning organs for human transplant, most of the current application is in the research field. Scientists can create tissue to see how it will respond to chemicals or medicines, and an individual's own cells can be used to create a replica tissue sample for a more accurate forecast of how that person's body will react.
"Until now, almost everything we've learned about how cells behave and about cell biology has been done on a two-dimensional plane, on petri dishes," says Dr. Angela Panoskaltsis-Mortari, a University of Minnesota professor who focuses on bioengineering. "That's a totally unnatural environment for a cell."
Panoskaltsis-Mortari's team has been working on rebuilding lungs and other parts of the respiratory system using human stem cells. With the BioBots printer, she hopes to print an esophagus that could be used in a human body. Panoskaltsis-Mortari had never worked with 3-D printers before--she says most price tags were around $150,000, with some as high as $300,000--until Cabrera reached out to her to see if she'd be interested in testing a beta version of the BioBots printer. In exchange, he asked for $5,000 and feedback on how the scientists were using it and what BioBots could improve.
Panoskaltsis-Mortari was one of a handful of biologists Cabrera reached out to for testing. Like many of them, she ended up buying the $10,0000 market version when it was released in January.
"They're selling them at reasonable prices that almost any lab can afford," she says. "That really opens it up to a huge array of people in different fields, in different areas of expertise, who don't need to have a true engineering background. It's an excellent vehicle to generate a lot of knowledge in a short span of time."
The field of bioprinting is hardly new, and many believe we're at least a decade away from a usable printed organ. But with 3-D bioprinters available to far more people, the chances of big innovations increase drastically--because there's no telling who might break through. Cabrera envisions 3-D printers being able to create entire living things--like genetically engineered plants that can pull extra carbon dioxide from the air.
For that reason, he sees the printers as a means to an end. "It wasn't 3-D printing that was captivating," he says. "The idea of being able to use biology to design and engineer living things that can do things like cure disease or eliminate organ waiting lists, or even revert climate change, or help us live on other planets--that's more what was exciting about it. So 3-D printing, bioprinting in general, was really just a starting point."