Scientists 3D-Printed a Human Immune System to Battle Covid-19
In the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak, Maker communities around the globe fired up their 3D printers to come to the aid of overburdened hospitals and first responders. Individuals and groups of amateurs and experts alike created 3D-printed face shields, masks, and ventilators. In labs, tissue engineers printed organs like lungs and blood vessels to study the devastating effects of the disease.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, one group of scientists pushed 3D printing technology to the limit: They synthesized an entire functional immune system. Researchers at the biotech company Prellis Biologics have developed a fully synthetic system of 3D-printed lymph nodes — the small but mighty organs at the front lines of your immune system that generate antibodies in response to infection — that can pump out large numbers of antibodies to SARS-CoV2 within just a few weeks. And they were able to do it all without the need for a living host.
Research on Covid-19 has underscored the critical role of the immune system in treating and preventing the disease — in particular, the ability of the immune system to churn out hosts of the molecular sentinels known as antibodies. Infusions of antibodies against a variety of different pathogens have the potential to help fight off active infection and prevent it in the future.
But acquiring antibodies is tricky. While they can be grown in a lab, doing so is a labor-intensive process that involves finding the genes that code for the antibodies, then co-opting cells to mass-produce them. Most of the time, antibodies come from the blood plasma of people who have recovered from an infection, but this is a slow process that relies on the generosity of healthy human donors. Even then, the antibodies harvested may not be the right type. In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, time isn’t a luxury that science can afford.