Erik Gatenholm first saw a 3D bioprinter in early 2015. His father, Paul, a professor in chemistry and biopolymer technology at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, had bought one for his department. It cost somewhere in the region of $200,000. “My father was like, ‘This thing can print human organs,’” Gatenholm recalls, still awestruck. “I said, ‘Bullshit!’ Then it printed a little piece of cartilage. It wasn’t cartilage, but it was like, this could be cartilage. That was the moment when it was like, ‘This is frickin’ cool!’”
Gatenholm, who had long owned a regular 3D printer, decided then that he wanted to do something in 3D bioprinting. His language might be a bit Bill & Ted – he grew up between Sweden and the US, where his father is a visiting professor – but his intent and ambitions are very serious. Gatenholm had started his first biotech company aged 18 and he realised that if this machine had the potential to print organs, like his father said, then it had the potential to radically change the world of medicine.
There is a global shortage of organs available for lifesaving transplants. In the UK, for example, you can now expect to wait an average of 944 days – more than two-and-a-half years – for a kidney transplant on the NHS. There’s a similar shortage of liver, lungs and other organs. The lack of transplant tissues is estimated to be the leading cause of death in America. Around 900,000 deaths a year, or around one-third of all deaths in the US, could be prevented or delayed by organ or engineered tissue transplants. The demand, simply, is endless.
Gatenholm’s father introduced him to Héctor Martínez, one of his students who was doing a PhD on tissue engineering, and early on another student, Ivan Tournier, was also involved in the brainstorming. “We were talking about doing some experiments,” says Gatenholm, who is 27, tall and handsome even by Swedish standards.
“So I said, ‘Why don’t we just go online and buy the ink we need?’ And Ivan said, ‘Well, there’s no ink. You can’t buy it.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ It was the dumbest thing I ever heard. There’s a bunch of printers on the market, just buy the ink. And he said, ‘No, you don’t understand, there is no ink. You have to make it yourself, you have to mix something.’ So I was like, ‘Just make an ink then!’”
Image Credit: ETH Zürich