As the senior care industry gains more traction among both veteran and fledgling tech companies, one startup is poised to take the aging services sector by storm.
And it’s not producing wearables or health monitoring devices. It’s 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.
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 newly formed company is now 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.
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 tissues 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 — large expensive mainframes that took up entire rooms and were operated by punch cards and teams of technicians.
“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.
Senior Care Implications
For the senior care market, the implications of such technology are 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 senior care market and, more specifically, senior housing.
“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.”
However, if technological advances could keep seniors alive — and healthy — for a much longer period of time, the demand for long-term care options could change.
Previously, senior living providers noted that the rising life expectancy was a good sign for operators of continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs), who often cater to those seniors who plan ahead and move in at earlier ages.
Still, some industry experts say even such tech as bioprinters won’t have much effect on seniors’ longevity in the near term.
“While there are many biophysical, medical and technological advances in process, there is nothing … likely to greatly impact longevity for the boomer population through their particular life cycle — even, at this point, a cure for Alzheimer’s,” says Andrew Carle, professor, executive-in-residence and founding director of the Program in Senior Housing Administration at George Mason University.
He does note, however, that the demand for senior housing will continue despite any advances in technology, as it serves a unique role in the aging process.
“There is a principle role for senior housing in its ability to congregate people socially — and the boomer population is the most social in history,” Carle says. “They will be seeking opportunities to live and interact with each other if we build the types of active and intellectually stimulating communities they want.”
While the effects of advanced bioprinting remain unknown, one thing is clear: It will impact senior care in some capacity in the future.
“The way it [affects] drug screening and the cost of developing new drugs is definitely going to impact senior health,” Cabrera says. “We’ll have more drugs approved at lower costs and they’ll be cheaper for everyone, which will increase the level of senior care — and increase the level of care for everybody across the age gap.”
Written by Emily Study