From 3D Printing Circuit Boards to Organs, Nano Dimension’s CEO Discusses New Bioprinting Subsidiary

Nano Dimension CEO Amit Dror explains the company’s new bioprinting subsidiary.

3D printing electronics is one thing, but printing complex human tissues is something else entirely. Or is it? Okay, it is, but the two processes have some similarities, and 3D printing company Nano Dimension believes that it can span these two wildly different fields and usher in a new era of both electronics manufacturing and medicine.

A concept rendering of Nano Dimension’s bioprinter. (Image courtesy of Nano Dimension.)

A concept rendering of Nano Dimension’s bioprinter. (Image courtesy of Nano Dimension.)

The NASDAQ-traded Israeli firm (NASDAQ:NNDM) recently announced that it would be entering into the miraculous world of bioprinting through a new subsidiary. To learn how Nano Dimension could add bioprinting technology to its existing business of 3D printing printed circuit boards (PCBs), spoke to the company’s CEO, Amit Dror. Afterward, the two technologies didn’t seem quite as disparate as one might think.

3D Printing PCBs

Nano Dimension just brought its DragonFly 2020 PCB 3D Printer to market last year. The system relies on an inkjetting technology to dispense a UV-curable photopolymer, as the dielectric material, and silver nanoparticles, as the conductive material, to 3D print rigid PCBs layer by layer.

The DragonFly 2020 printer’s first six customers have been some pretty big ones. “Some of our customers are among the top 10 defense companies in the U.S. and Fortune 100 consumer products manufacturers. We even have one of the top 10 banks as a customer,” Dror pointed out.

The DragonFly 2020 3D Printer is capable of producing multi-layered PCBs, saving companies time and money through in-house prototyping[MG1] . (Image courtesy of Nano Dimension.)

The DragonFly 2020 3D Printer is capable of producing multi-layered PCBs, saving companies time and money through in-house prototyping. (Image courtesy of Nano Dimension.)

As we learned in an interview with Nano Dimension CBO Simon Fried, the company has demonstrated its platform to be quite flexible, regularly reporting research that it has conducted into new materials. For instance, the latest release from the company explains that it has received a grant, in collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Defense, to develop a method for 3D printing ceramic materials. This could potentially make it possible, according to Nano Dimension, to fabricate PCBs with superior properties than existing PCBs, due to the insulation and mechanical strength of ceramics.

Other advances include the ability to 3D print flexible PCBs, on a next-generation system, and embed electronics directly into PCBs as they are being printed. Dror explained that this was achieved by pausing the printing process midway through, dropping in an electronic component, such as a CPU, and finishing the print. Dror believes that it will be increasingly possible to 3D print complex, free-form shapes, so that PCBs won’t be constrained to flat circuit boards, but can have more unique geometries.

“It’s really a new approach to how things could be made,” Dror said. “Think about what could be achieved if you take all of these elements [like flexible PCBs and embedded electronics] and use them in order to create all kinds of products for the Internet of Things or customized parts or specialty parts for the space industry or other industries where there is a need to miniaturize elements, for example.”

But how does this inkjetting technology port over to bioprinting, which uses organic matter instead of polymers and conductive inks?

From NanoDimension to BioDimension

“It started with an experiment,” Dror said. “Basically, we worked with [Accellta Ltd.], which approached us to see if we could help them with printing—or, more importantly, very accurate printing—stem cells as a test to try to create tissue.”

The company has about 90 employees, including those with PhDs in chemistry, mechanical engineering and software, but lacks experience with biological material. Dror added, “We thought at that time, ‘what do we know about bio?’”

What the company does have, however, is expertise in combining different materials. And that’s where Nano Dimension began to see the similarities between 3D printing PCBs and organic matter. “Think about it. What’s a tissue? It’s a set of cells made up mostly different cell types, placed together in an orderly manner. They might have some other materials combining them or holding them in one way or another. These materials could be proteins or other structural and connective elements. One tissue might be soft, while another could be firm. Together, different tissues form an organ.”

In other words, from a general perspective, organic tissue is simply a combination of different co-located materials, much like a 3D-printed PCB. Obviously, there are huge dissimilarities between the two, but this was enough to give Nano Dimension the confidence to pursue the project.

Nano Dimension’s labs facility. (Image courtesy of Nano Dimension.)

Nano Dimension’s labs facility. (Image courtesy of Nano Dimension.)

The resulting experiments were successful. With Accellta’s suspension-based cell culturing systems and a specially adapted version of Nano Dimension’s 3D printing platform, the partners were able to 3D print viable stem cells.

As Nano Dimension continued the development of its DragonFly 2020 for PCB 3D printing, Dror said that he just could not shake the excitement of what they had accomplished in bioprinting. “We just couldn’t give up on this new and exciting thing that we had just developed—this other world where you could actually use this technology to help create better medications and all kinds of solutions for people,” Dror said.

After performing research on the bioprinting field, Dror said that he and his colleagues realized that their platform might actually have superior characteristics compared to other bioprinting platforms out there. In turn, the decision was made to form a subsidiary that would raise its own funds independently of Nano Dimension, ensuring that Nano Dimension investors would not be troubled that their funds were going toward a subsidiary devoted to an unrelated technology.

“For now, we call it Bio Dimension,” Dror said. “It’s not an official name yet because it hasn’t been registered, but that’s the nickname we use for now.”

Bioprinting Kidneys

Another decision that was made was to pursue the treatment of kidney disease. Dror believes that his company’s platform might be best suited for more complex tissues. This is not only because a number of companies are already working on simpler tissues, like bone and cartilage, but that Nano Dimension’s inkjetting platform is already capable of dispensing multiple materials almost in parallel and in a wide area.

“Biomaterials, in their natural form ready for printing, are pretty liquid, which is a problem,” Dror explained. “There are all kinds of solutions that use gels and different materials to address this, but we think we can come up with a slightly different approach. We think that we have something that could better.”

Nano Dimension’s labs facility. (Image courtesy of Nano Dimension.)

Nano Dimension’s labs facility. (Image courtesy of Nano Dimension.)

He didn’t give too many details related to why this would be essential, but he did mention that the new subsidiary would be more focused on primary cells instead of stem cells, which might speed up the progress of the firm’s work and skip the problems associated with the use of stem cells. The idea would be to take existing cells from a patient that are capable of repairing themselves, rather than stem cells, which would need significant culturing.

“We haven’t really started doing all of the activity,” Dror said, “but we’ve done significant research and we decided that it is possible to form a functioning, multi-layered, 3D-printed kidney tissue for the purpose of blood filtration.”

Dror explained that one issue with bioprinting any tissue is the problem of incorporation of vascular networks, Dror said, “Bio Dimensio’s primary target is to 3D print biological structures that are capable of filtering blood and regulating the balance of ions, in a similar form to the human kidney. Blood supply is essential for the delivery of necessary substances to and carrying waste from the tissue. Despite their small size, the kidneys receive about 20% of the heart’s blood output for filtration and for allowing reabsorption and secretion between blood vessels and the inner lumen of the nephron in the peritubular capillaries, traveling alongside the nephrons.”

He added, “Due to the importance in appropriate blood supply Bio Dimension pays special attention to this essential issue. Bio Dimension’s 3D printed bio-structure will be composed of bio-membranes, each consists of few cell layers in a way that every living cell will have direct contact with blood supply, and accordingly, sufficient oxygen and nutrients supply.”

Dror was reluctant to give too specific a timeline for the subsidiary’s ultimate goal of “eliminating the need for dialysis,” but his estimates were impressive. “What we’re going to do first is focus on creating a tissue-platform that will allow for flexible modular tissue bioprinting. That’s going to take a few months,” Dror explained.

“In parallel, we’re actually going to work on creating the bioink platform,” he continued. “Probably by the end of the first year, a milestone that we think is achievable is the actual bioprinting of multi-layered structures. It wouldn’t be an organ-like solution at that stage. That’s going to take more time, but definitely what we’re trying to achieve is to show that we’re 3D printing a relatively complex tissue or maybe even more than one tissue that has the ability to perform different types of blood filtration. We actually want to get to the point where the proof of concept is pretty vivid and we can perform some tests.”

That’s just in the first year, if all goes well. Next, the company will work on developing a variety of tissues for drug testing, toxicological studies and research as an intermediate milestone toward the ultimate goal. “The main goal is to start working—probably through the second year—on printing, in parallel, different types of tissues in order to try to form more of an organ-like set of tissues. How long that would take would be a bit irresponsible to try to estimate. I think it’s fair to say that we’re talking several solutions, that would be fair to say. But significant milestones that show complex multilayered tissues I think is achievable within a one-year time frame,” Dror said.

According to market research firm IDTechEx, the bioprinting industry may grow from a market size of $481 million in 2014 to $6 billion in 2024. More importantly, however, the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) states that, as of January 2016, there were 100,791 patients awaiting kidney transplants in the United States. The NKF also states, “In 2014, 4,761 patients died while waiting for a kidney transplant. Another, 3,668 people became too sick to receive a kidney transplant.”

These numbers may decline if more good Samaritans willingly donate their kidneys to strangers. They may also decrease thanks to new donor networks, which pair willing donors to patients in need based on blood and tissue matches. But if companies like Bio Dimension really are able to achieve their goals, we may ultimately be able to eliminate the kidney waiting list altogether and stop the illegal organ trafficking trade.

To learn more about Nano Dimension and stay up to date with the official launch of the subsidiary, visit the Nano Dimension website.