|An Interview with Professor Chua Chee Kai|
29 Jul 2015
Professor Chua Chee Kai is the Executive Director of the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing (SC3DP), School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Professor Chua Chee Kai was Conference Chairman at the recent International Bioprinting Congress
held in Singapore on 9 - 10 July. This successful event will be returning to Singapore on 21-22 July 2016.
1) Could you please tell us more about the work you do and what are your research interests?
3D printing is a fascinating technology that inspires, as the possibilities are endless. I first became intrigued by the idea when I was doing my PhD in Germany. I remember watching engineers manufacture by chipping away furiously at a block of material. The amount of wastage generated confounded me. That experience motivated me to think about additive manufacturing, where things add up to create a greater part.
As I got into this line of 3D printing, I began thinking of the real-life benefits such a technology can bring to humans. I was passionate about saving lives, and bioprinting can do exactly that.
2) You have been working on 3D printing which was known then as Rapid Prototyping for more than two decades now. How has the progress been?
3D printing has been around for more than two decades, even though the technology has garnered attention worldwide only in recent years. Comparing then and now, 3D printing has become more consumer-friendly and mainstream, mainly due to the several breakthroughs via research and development, and partly because of new materials and techniques.
The 3D printing technology has developed to the point that the Economist has labelled it as the Third Industrial Revolution. Such a revolution will open up the manufacturing industry to the entire world, and bring the 3D printing technology into the consumer’s home, where everyone can partake in the innovation.
At the same time, and perhaps more crucially, 3D printing is now able to make significant contributions to industries such as Aerospace and Defence, Building and Construction, Marine and Offshore, Bioprinting and Food Printing.
3D printing is not just about replacing any existing technologies — it is about creating brand new products with totally new possibilities, which was not possible with the old technologies. It is not only a game-changer for industries and their businesses, but also a life-changer for many people.
3) Could you tell us more about the 3D Scaffold for cardiac tissue engineering project you are working on?
In living tissues, cells exist in 3D environment where they interact with each other in a matrix manner. As such, it would be inaccurate and insufficient for us to study tissues in 2D representations, as they do not reflect the complexity of how the cells work.
The use of 3D scaffolds will enable researchers to have a clearer understanding of the interactions between cells. It is important to note that the biological interactions between the cells and the scaffold are determined by the material properties and scaffold characteristics. Henceforth, the materials used for the fabrication of scaffolds must have the right biological and chemical make-up for them to be recognised by the cells, to induce further interactions to bring about tissue regeneration.
4) What is the role of Additive Manufacturing (AM) technology in 3D Bioprinting and what is its potential?
3D bioprinting is breaking out as an emerging field within the AM technology that is to be reckoned with in many years to come moving forward. The role of 3D printing in the medical industry is very important due to its far-stretching benefits to both the medical professionals and the patients.
To the doctors, 3D printed medical devices are more sophisticated yet precise. With a 3D printed replica of a body part, surgeons are now able to study the complications of the operation in more depth, and more importantly, they are now able to rehearse the procedures before the surgery proper. This is important especially in complex surgeries where the margins for errors are low.
For the patients, they are already benefiting from the 3D printed prosthetic limbs and implants, which allow for greater degree of customisation for increased comfort and fit. The success and benefits of such developments have spurred researchers to think about further possibilities for the medical industry — the latest vision being to print human tissues and organs using the 3D printing technology. The reported success of functional blood vessels being 3D printed had many researchers excited as this will open the doors to new approaches that will probably bring a new dawn to the medical industry.
The focus of research is now on the usage of human cells as the bio-ink in the printer. While 3D bioprinting offers benefits to areas like drug testing, the ultimate aim is undoubtedly to develop completely functional organs for transplant. As 3D printed organs are developed using the patient’s cells, the risk of rejection by the body is very much lowered.
5) What are some of the challenges 3D bioprinting scientists face?
Many obstacles lie ahead for the development of 3D bioprinting before it can become mainstream. For instance, as the technology is in a very premature stage, there will be high initial costs mainly due to the costs of the bioprinters. There is also a regulatory issue as authorities have yet to agree on a consensus to regulate this technology.
Perhaps the biggest limitation lies in the ability to 3D print complex and vital human organs such as the heart and liver. The challenge is in vascularising the organs to help them survive — creating a network of integrated blood vessels is not easy, which is why engineers like ourselves will not be able to achieve this milestone alone. We need the expertise and biological knowledge of medical professionals to make this work.
6) Have we made any progress in this field, with respect to clinical applications?
In terms of timeline, drug testing will most probably be the first commercial application of 3D bioprinting. Currently, drugs are commonly tested in animals such as rats. While their biological make-up is similar to humans, we can never know for sure the reactions the drugs will have on the human body. With the 3D bioprinting technology, miniature human organs can be printed for purposes of such testing. This application is estimated to be in the market by as soon as the next couple of years.
Another application that is estimated to be launched in the short term by year 2018 is 3D printed skin. This application will be a boost for the cosmetic medical field, as it represents a cheaper alternative which will also cause less scarring for burn patients. Similarly, within the next decade, we should also see 3D printed cartilage replacements in the market.
The revolutionary 3D printed human organs would take a longer time to materialise. As studies in this area are still in a very preliminary stage, it is difficult to estimate the availability of this eventual target of the 3D bioprinting technology. However, the commercial interest, and more crucially, the medical needs of this application is huge. As of now, a big gap exists between organ supply and demand worldwide. 3D bioprinting has the potential to address this currently unmet need.
7) What are the prospects from here on for the 3D printing/bioprinting industry? How is it going to evolve in future?
Overall, according to Roots Analysis, the commercial potential value of 3D printed products is estimated to reach US$615 million by 2024. This is subsequently expected to rise to US$10 billion by 2030. Beyond 2030, 3D printed organs can become mainstream while other applications will see similar growth. To put it short, the potential of this technology is limitless!
8) What is this new 4D Bioprinting technology about?
While 3D bioprinting has been created and developed only in recent times, we realise that 3D is still not the limit. We discovered that we can now add one more dimension towards bioprinting which rides on the natural phenomenon of the cells’ ability to self-organise autonomously without any external intervention. Simply put, self-assembly is the 4th dimension of tissue engineering.
What is extremely interesting is the fact that self-assembly is a universal property in living organisms, so what we are doing is basically harnessing nature’s power to self-organise. This natural ability of self-assembly will help to solve one of the major challenges that we face in tissue engineering. We are now able to regenerate human tissues by simply injecting tiny components into the body, which will then self-assemble into larger and compatible scaffolds at an injury site. In other words, there is no longer a need for a major surgery for this purpose.
To sum it up, we are stepping into an exciting 4D era in tissue engineering!
9) Could you tell us more about the new facilities at Singapore Centre for 3D Printing (SC3DP). What are your expectations from it and its implications for Singapore?
At the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing (SC3DP), we aspire to position Singapore as a world leader in 3D printing. In saying that, we mean that we want to achieve significant breakthroughs and groundbreaking innovations in the area of 3D printing that can have notable impact upon the world. Being housed in the Nanyang Technological University, and supported by the National Research Foundation’s Medium Sized Centre Programme, SC3DP has adopted the following focal points in our research and development work which are of major importance to Singapore: (1) Aerospace and Defence, (2) Building and Construction, (3) Marine and Offshore (4) Future of Manufacturing. In addition to the four vertical pillars mentioned above, we are looking into expanding our capabilities into the 5th pillar – Bio- and Food Printing.
In addition to our existing facilities, we will be bringing in state of the art equipment for large scale printing. These equipment will be used for printing prototypes and actual parts for industrial sectors. The Centre will continue to expand by attracting and nurturing leading researchers who will work closely with industries to deliver novel and practical solutions, impacting upon Singapore economically and socially. Ultimately, the aim is to disrupt existing processes and create improved products which are of significant importance within and beyond our country. Indeed, this game-changing technology has immense potential to transform our lives!
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