The marvels of 3D printing are now predicted to one day offer yet another innovative, cost-effective, and highly customizable power: the power to cure cancer using designed viruses. Though still some distance in the future, visionary scientists such as Andrew Hessel are actively experimenting with the 3D printing’s abilities to create biological materials. If successful, 3D printed viral-based cancer therapies could not only open a new field of medical technology, but also revolutionize the way modern medical industries do business.
Doctors will agree that current cancer therapies are horribly imprecise. While chemotherapy is indeed effective at destroying cancer cells, healthy human cells are also killed in the process. While in many cases chemotherapy can send cancer into remission, this is done at considerable cost to the health and well-being of the patient.
Modern cancer research is rapidly moving towards creating new therapies that will eliminate cancerous cells and leave healthy cells intact. One approach to achieving this dream is to create and utilize modified viruses—called oncolytic viruses– to exclusively infect and destroy cancer cells. On May 13, 2014 a case report published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings described just such a case in which a modified measles virus was used to send the cancers of two patients into complete remission. This oncolytic virotherapy was especially useful at targeting the cancerous cells of the bone marrow. In addition, the researchers were able to visualize the virus using radioactive iodine that bound specifically to the viral agent.
While oncolytic viruses certainly offer an exciting first glimpse into the future of cancer therapy, visionaries such as Andrew Hessel from Autodesk Inc take the dream one step farther. Earlier this week, Hessel explained how in the future, researchers might be able to design and create oncolytic viruses using 3D printing technology.
The move to 3D printed cancer therapies is as much inspired by issues with modern medicine as it is by modern medical capabilities. Hessel notes that today’s pharmaceutical companies earn profit by developing and promoting drugs and therapies that are made to address the mass-market. However, this non-specific approach to medicine often means that the drugs and/or therapies may have unpleasant side-effects and be imprecise and less effective at treating and individual patient’s health needs. 3D printed oncolytic virus cancer therapies solve this problem by offering a cheap and highly customizable way by which people could personalize their own cancer treatment.
Though there is surely a great potential fortune to be made in being the first to invent 3D-printed cancer therapies, Hessel also promotes an innovative business model to get these treatments to market. Instead of the time-intensive and often prohibitively-expensive process of pushing therapies through drug trials, patenting, and then commercializing , Hessel promotes the idea of making the therapy more accessible through other means. In the beginning, he hopes that patients who willingly elect to undergo the therapy would be able to receive treatment free of charge. Each individual would have their particular forms of cancer analyzed and a specific oncolytic virus would be tailored to their needs. Eventually enough information would be amassed that patients could address their health’s particular needs by accessing an affordable, subscription-based, Spotify-like service.
To be sure, many researchers are skeptical of both the business model and current technology’s capabilities. MIT researcher Neil Gershenfeld voiced the opinion that perhaps Hessel’s hopes for 3D printed oncolytic viral therapies are over-simplifying cancer biology’s fine and important details. Others might complain that tinkering with viruses and injecting them into the human body is an inherently risky business that ought to be subject to the rigors and expensive clinical trials and regulation. At the very least, one should consider that as of yet, 3D printers have yet to create a virus, and until they do, even positive visions of the future remain merely speculation.
Hessel himself admits that we are still quite a ways away from achieving the dream of 3D printed cancer therapies. However, he notes that if not now, soon the technology to develop such therapies will be available and that the new limiting factor will become multinational business models and the human imagination. In addition to cancer, if 3D printed viruses become a reality, cures for diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis might also be real possibilities. Hessel and others like him are working fast to recruit young minds to learn about biotechnology. In the near future they hope to test preliminary 3D printed vaccines in cell cultures, later in animals, and perhaps one day, in a group of volunteering human subjects.
By Sarah Takushi