World-first 3D printer helping advance cancer treatment at Peter Mac wins award

One of the world’s most advanced 3D bioprinters, in use at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, has been named product of the year at the 2019 National Good Design Awards. Find out how cancer patients may benefit from this potentially life-changing product.  

Design + Industry (D&I), working with biotech company Inventia Life Science, have made history, creating a revolutionary 3D bioprinting platform for cell culture, which grows human cells of tumours in multiple layers in a matter of hours – often taken from patient scans – that can then be tested with drugs to help scientists search for cures for brain, breast and prostate cancer, plus neurodegenerative disease. Down the track, the bioprinter may even be used for human skin, bone, muscle and organ transplants.

From a field of 700 entries, it’s no wonder D+I took out Australia’s top design honour, the 2019 Product of the Year at the 61st annual Good Design Awards, for the Inventia Rastrum 3D Bioprinter.

While the technology is a game-changer in the way cancer will be treated, the award has been a long time coming. D+I, established in 1987 and with 50 designers and engineers on its books, has been fine-tuning the bioprinter with Inventia Life Science since 2014.

Jeff Malone, Head of Operations, Design + Industry. A good way to get your head around bioprinting is to think of it as an extension of 3D printing, says D+I’s Head of Operations, Jeff Malone. "Bioprinting is like 3D printing, except instead of plastics or metals, it prints living cells to recreate tissues. By printing layer-by-layer to form a 3D structure, it’s possible to recreate the complex biology that we find in the human body."

It’s revolutionary technology for healthcare, he adds. "Compared to cells growing in a single layer in a petri dish, 3D cell models are a better representation of the way cancer cells grow and respond to drugs – cancer, after all, doesn’t grow on 2D plastic surfaces in the body."

In the long term, the bioprinter holds the promise of recreating body parts using a patient’s own cells in order to replace damaged or aged tissues and organs. In the shorter term, the ability to recreate biology in the lab will rapidly accelerate the process of discovering new drugs or optimising them for an individual patient.

Using design to advance cancer research removes the need to use plastic or animals. "The process of studying how cancer develops and spreads, or developing new therapies to fight it, starts with cancer cells in the lab," says Jeff. "Typically, this has been done with cells growing on plastic, or in animal models like mice, but the problem is that these cells don't respond like they do in the human body. We desperately need better 3D cell models that accurately reflect what’s happening in the body and can be used for high-throughput drug discovery."

Using animals for drug testing is time-consuming (it relies on breeding and raising the animals), costly, and ethically challenging. The use of 3D cell models in the drug testing process could significantly reduce, if not completely eliminate, reliance on animal testing.

"Rastrum makes this possible by printing 3D models of cancer quickly and reproducibly, giving scientists a reliable platform to accelerate the search for cures for cancer and other diseases," Jeff explains. "While there are other bioprinting platforms available, most are based on outdated printing technology and aren’t easy to use. Rastrum, on the other hand, is built on innovative digital bioprinting technology (more like colour inkjet printing) which combines many different cell types and biomaterials rapidly. It delivers this powerful capability in a product that makes complex 3D cell biology simple for the user."

How the bioprinter works

The printer is a platform that can be used to print organs and parts and eventually there will be hundreds of blueprints for different organs that can be used with it. The first application is printing 3D cancer models but the makers behind it are also developing an expanding library of applications that will be used to create 3D models of many other cancers and diseases, including those affecting the brain or heart tissue, in the lab.

The bioprinter in use in a Sydney laboratory. Individual patients can also be targeted. The Rastrum can print samples based on a patient’s actual tumour and tailor drug treatment to suit – that’s key as every patient’s cancer is different and will respond to drugs differently. Currently, choosing which therapy is best for an individual is a hit and miss process, meaning a patient may have to endure multiple rounds of chemotherapy. By taking a biopsy of a tumour and printing the cancer cells into a more accurate 3D cell model, Rastrum could enable many different drugs and drug combinations to be tested on the patient’s cancer cells in the lab in order to guide selection of the best treatment option.

The Victorian Centre for Functional Genomics at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre was the first lab to install the Rastrum system in 2018. A rollout to several other sites in Australia is planned for later this year. International implementation conversations are also underway.

Our state’s global reputation for product design is well earned. "Victoria has a well-established global reputation for high quality engineering and product development," says Jeff. "There’s a depth of expertise across a wide range of engineering disciplines combined with world-class product development companies who can convert that expertise into world-class products. Specifically in the medical technology sector, Victoria has a very healthy ecosystem of research, clinical trial support and bioengineering product development."

Find out more about the other winners of the 2019 Good Design Awards.