3-D Printing: A Brave New World for Home Care?

Home health patients have long suffered from ailments relating to their tissues and organs, but one award-winning startup aims to eventually solve these aging problems entirely through the use of 3-D printing technology.

That’s the idea behind BioBots, which had a sort of Facebook-esque start in a University of Pennsylvania dorm room last year.

But the company also has some home care experts hoping for even more applications of the technology, which could offer a “huge opportunity” for providers.

The newly formed company is creating buzz in the health care space, attracting the attention of researchers and universities worldwide, and earning “Most Innovative Company” at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Accelerator startup competition.

Pushing the health care boundaries, BioBots is using 3-D bioprinting technology to create living tissues that can be used for testing new drugs and could eventually replace damaged tissues — and perhaps organs — in the human body.

Though BioBots is still in its early development stages, co-founder Danny Cabrera assures that its 3-D bioprinting technology “is going to change everything about aging.”

How It Works

BioBots’ desktop 3-D bioprinter allows researchers to build living tissues for testing new compounds and biologics, replacing the need for testing compounds on animals and making way for more drugs to become FDA-approved at lower costs.

More specifically, the technology uses software that instructs a printer to deposit groups of cells in precise layers, which are intermixed with a hydrogel that binds the cells together, ultimately creating 3-D functional tissues out of human cells.

Eventually, researchers could use stem cells to recreate functional tissues that would “patch” damaged tissues in the human body, or could even create entire organ replacements, says Cabrera, who founded BioBots with fellow University of Pennsylvania student Ricardo Solorzano.

“As we age our tissues mutate — they get sick. By combining this technology with healthy cells from the same patient, you can create tissue patches that will stimulate the regeneration of the tissue,” Cabrera says.

BioBots’ initial customers — many of whom are academic researchers and universities — are using the company’s technology to do just that: build complex tissue structures that may someday replace damaged tissues in the body.

While the printer can currently create miniature organs out of patients’ cells to test new drug compounds, more advanced tissue and organ development is still in the works.

“The Holy Grail is to develop fully functioning replacement organs out of a patient’s own cells, eliminating the organ waiting list, but in the meantime we’ll settle for getting more drugs approved by the FDA at a significantly lower cost on an accelerated time scale, improving the quality of life for millions of people around the world,” the company says in a statement.

3-D Printing Meets Health Care

Several industries have already widely adopted the use of 3-D printing technology, as one article notes that it’s been used for architecture, industrial design, automotive and aerospace engineering, the military, civil engineering, fashion and food.

The health care sector is just one of the many to join the growing multi-billion-a-year 3-D printing market. In fact, world demand for 3-D printers and related materials and software is projected to rise 21% per year to $5 billion in 2017, according to a study by The Freedonia Group, an international business research company.

Its demand and rising popularity has also given way to innovations in medicine, leading to the manufacturing of body parts or prosthetics, medical devices and human tissues, as BioBots focuses on.

However, according to BioBots, up until now, 3-D bioprinters have been huge, extraordinarily expensive and difficult to use, similar to how computers were in their early days.

“This has kept the technology in the hands of a few companies that have begun developing tissue models to sell [to pharmaceutical companies], but these tests are rigid, and do not take advantage of the infinite, free customization that makes 3-D printing so powerful,” BioBots says.

In an effort to further develop its product, BioBots offers a significant discount in return for feedback on its devices, including how the product is working and how the researchers are using them. The desktop 3-D bioprinters sell for $25,000 outright, but if a customer is willing to work more closely with the team, which now boasts a staff of 10 people, its price tag drops to $5,000, Cabrera says.

Home Health Care Implications

For the home care market, the implications of such technology could be huge.

Americans are already living longer than ever before. The latest data shows that life expectancy in the United States hit an all-time high in 2012, rising to 78.8 years.

Increasing the already rising life expectancy is one potential result of bioprinting technology that could significantly impact the home care market.

“Part of increasing the standard of care is increasing the life expectancy — something technology will be doing very quickly,” Cabrera says. “We’re of the opinion that people living longer is a good thing.”

But if technological advances could keep seniors alive — and healthy — for a much longer period of time, would the demand for home care options change? One expert says no, because the role of a home health agency goes beyond simply medical attention.

“Our role in home health is to be educators; we’re educating patients and families of safety risks, health plans and their responsibilities,” says Brett Frankenberg, program director at RehabCare, which offers home care. “I don’t see the need for that going away because of this technology.”

However, as 3-D printing tech becomes more affordable, it could create an opportunity for home health providers to realize more efficiencies in their business.

Frankenberg imagines a world in which agencies could use the tech to manufacture durable medical equipment (DME) and other devices for their clients, without having to go through a DME provider.

“How neat would it be if my client needed a reacher, a commode or an orthotic and I could take measurements and within hours have a device in their hands, as opposed to what we do now, which is call the DME provider,” he says. “That would definitely change the game and create more value for the home health provider — and that’s a huge opportunity.”

Written by Emily Study