Singapore’s bioprinter

As you may have known, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is holding 2 3D printing contests, one devoted to 3D-printed fashion and the other dedicated to reinventing the abacus. But what what you may not know much about was NTU’s brand new Nanyang Additive Manufacturing Centre (NAMC).

In an effort to become one of the leading countries in 3D printing technology, supported by Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB), the university is in the process of constructing its $30 million NTU Additive Manufacturing Centre, to be opened in May of 2014. The center will not only house the latest 3D printers – such as Objet machines from Stratasys – for graduate and undergraduate students to use in their research, but also Singapore’s first 3D bioprinter. And, it seems, the bioprinter will be in good hands.

Singapore’s first bioprinter is a device that produces human tissue and organs.

Singapore's bioprinterSingapore’s bioprinter from regenHU

Made by Swiss-based firm regenHu, the machine will cost about $1 million and could provide life-saving tissue to those in urgent need of transplants.

First, stem cells – which can replicate themselves many times – are put into a bio cartridge, along with proteins and other biological material. This “ink” is then printed in a certain size and shape before its particles fuse to form living tissue.

3D printing can help to best suit patients’ needs, producing the perfect fits for body parts and organs,” said the centre’s director, Professor Chua Chee Kai. “The whole manufacturing process can be more cost-effective than conventional methods.

He estimates that within 30 years, bioprinted blood vessels and heart tissue that are actually transplantable may be available.

With heightened interest from other disciplines, especially bioscience, he added optimistically: “I suspect a mature (cardiac) product may even be possible within the next 20 years.”

Interest in 3-D printing globally is high, and the technology is advancing rapidly,” said Prof Chua. “We need to grow our pool of talent in this area.”

The ultimate goal is to bioprint human tissues and even organs directly, without going through the tissue-scaffolding process currently being used. To achieve this will likely involve stem cells.

Professor Chua Chee KaiProfessor Chua Chee Kai, chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Nanyang Technological University (NTU)

Recently, living stem cells have been successfully printed, said Prof Chua. Thus when bioscientists can precisely direct stem cells to differentiate into the specific cell type required, whether heart cells or liver cells, say, then the bioprinting of tissues and organs would be achieved through printing stem cells instead of printing multiple types of cells that make up a complex organ like the kidney or liver.

More recently, Prof. Chua, accomplished the task of printing biodegradable scaffolds for bioprinting and submitted a government proposal for $25 million to print a lung using stem cells. Prof. Chua had attempted to secure government funding for 3D printers in the past, telling The Straits Times, “When I first tried to get funds from the Ministry of Education to buy a 3D printer for metals, I got shot down. The next year I tried, I got shot down. I hope the government will give us money to educate people now because I don’t want to be following others always.”

Another $8 million will be spent on technology for large-scale manufacturing in the marine, offshore, automobile, and aerospace industries. Prof Chua hopes Singapore will eventually be capable of printing large industrial parts such as those for cars and planes.

Nanyang Additive Manufacturing Centre

NAMC will provide a PhD program in AM, as well as minors/specializations for Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering students pursuing their Masters in Precision Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Manufacturing Systems and Engineering. Undergraduate students will be able to pursue independent research in 3D printing through NTU’s Undergraduate Research Experience on Campus (URECA) program. The center will have direct ties to industry projects that will both advance the country’s research in the field and to the direct development of new products.

The 300m2 center is working on creating new software, technologies materials, and applications.  Here are just a few areas and projects that the centre is pursuing, according to the NAMC site:

  • Selective Laser Melting of Aluminium and Copper Alloys and High Purity Silica for Defense Applications
  • Hybrid manufacturing
  • A fully automated 3D chocolate printer with a delivery system that can maintain the chocolate’s viscosity and tempering temperature. Future research will look into artificial printing of proteins that resemble that of meat.
  • Direct printing of cells as well as producing biodegradable scaffolds for tissue engineering.

As such, cooperation between bioscience and engineering, which are already Singapore’s areas of strength, will be crucial. If things work out, the Republic could emerge as an important centre for tissue and organ fabrication.