Drug development takes a long time, most of which is taken up by testing.

Before reaching humans, new medicines are first tested on mice, then rats, dogs and primates. “It can sometimes take 15 to 20 years for a drug discovery to happen,” said Dr Deepak Kalaskar, associate professor at University College London. “The reason is these animals do not replicate human genomics or physiology.”

In the future, said Kalaskar, pharmaceutical companies will bypass all those time-consuming pre-human stages. The enabling technology is bioprinting – 3D printing of living cells and other materials to create biological tissue and organs.

By using human cells in printers such as the NovoGen Bioprinter from Organovo, researchers can replicate ‘targeted’ tissues throughout the body, such as skin or liver tissue. They are exposed to viral particles, bacteria and drugs before microscopic and other observation.

Bioprinting made headlines last year after projects including the development of ‘organoids’ at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina. Led by Dr Anthony Atala, the team built miniature lungs and colons to assist Covid-19 research, the New York Times reported. Constructed by using a scaffold of biodegradable material followed by a ‘bioink’ of cells and hydrogels, the organoids were used for drug testing.

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