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【China Startup】 The road to 3D organ printing | 前方高能 3D打印人体组织2016-08-12

How would you define a “good life?” Exciting escapades and interesting encounters? Or simply a healthy and long existence? 

Regenovo, a company which follows the mantra “Beyond imagination, Print good life”, is pushing the boundaries of 3D printing by using the nascent technology to fabricate live tissue and cellular structures.

The groundbreaking technique could save and prolong millions of lives, whether by creating artificial organs, repairing skin tissue or helping screen for cancer.

CEO Xu Mingen has used his wide interdisciplinary knowledge to push the company, which was spun off from Hangzhou Electronic Science and Technology University, to the forefront of medical science. 

Regenovo, which is based in Hangzhou, capital of east China’s Zhejiang Province, is able to produce tissue repair scaffolds with the help of a specialized 3D printer.

“Now we are the leading international player in living cell printing,” he says. “We use it to repair tissue, for example in bones and skin.”

The company has already produced 3D-printed ears, but is now on the long road to creating a 3D-printed human liver. It can produce tiny sections of the liver, and these could eventually be used to build a full artificial version of the organ.

The artificial construction of a functioning human liver is an immensely ambitious target, not least because the ability to print living tissue and blood vessels simultaneously has so far eluded scientists.

But if Xu and his team are successful, the lives of millions around the world could be prolonged. 

A shortage of organ donations is an acute global problem. Xu explains that six million people needed an organ transplant in China alone last year, but only 100,000 actually underwent the procedure. And some of those who were able to get a transplant suffered immunological rejection – their immune systems rejected the new organ – a problem that could be reduced with artificial organs. 

The human cells printed by Regenovo are also used to test drugs. Traditional methods of testing, such as animal experimentation, consume time, money and energy, Xu says. 

But Regenovo’s alternative technique - which involves printing the tissue structure with human cells - is simpler, cheaper and more reliable. The company’s scientists can even build a 3D liver model to detect for drug hepatotoxicity - liver damage caused by chemical use. 

“It’s more efficient and most importantly, more accurate compared with regular models,” said Xu. 

And Regenovo’s technology is being applied to innovations across medical science. The company has also been working to provide drug screening and evaluation services, especially for high-risk cancers like breast, ovarian and lung.

The business

When Regenovo was spun out of Hangzhou Electronic Science and Technology University, Xu planned to create a “small but concentrated” company. But after making a breakthrough in cartilage research at the end of 2014, he recognized that the level of investor interest was so great that he could step up his goals. 

“The enthusiasm of the investment was so intense that we accelerated the process of clinical application,” said Xu.

Regenovo spent the first round of funding on materials and clinical systems, and the results are extremely positive.

The company has realized an unprecedented growth rate so far in 2016, with a year-on-year uptick of more than 700 percent in the first two quarters. Projected growth in August and September is an incredible 1,000 percent.

Regenovo is not the only up-and-coming player in China’s 3D bio-printing industry. Teams from southwest China’s Chengdu and east China’s Qingdao have also served both scientific and market value in the sector.

“The next year or so will be the real breakthrough period for 3D bio-printing,” Xu predicts. 

The journey 

Progress and acclaim are now arriving fast, but Xu has faced difficulties and challenges along the way. 

Lack of money was one of the biggest problems he faced when, in 2010, he was leading a research team at Hangzhou Electronic Science and Technology University.

“At that time, the process of applying for the national funds took longer than six months and as little as five percent of the money could be spent on the talent, which was supposed to be the most important part,” said Xu. 

who spent six months in Silicon Valley as a visiting scholar, is an admirer of the working culture he experienced in California.

“I like the American’s way of being flexible and open-minded,” he said. “And I personally very much agree with the encouragement of innovation and engineering culture in Silicon Valley.”

The lack of scale and stability for the on-campus team was another challenge, as the real-world market has very different demands to those of the laboratory.

Xu explained that in the university, two or three experiments in 10 would be a success. When it came to batch production, however, it was a completely different story, which required a technical architecture change. 

Stability also matters a great deal. Students are able to modify the program or adjust the circuit board in a laboratory if something doesn’t work, but that’s not the case for customers. The market demands mature and stable production.

Xu was warned there is “a huge cliff” between lab pilot to commercial production, and only one percent of lab successes survive the transition. 

“Looking at the last three years or so, I would say we have one leg over the cliff,” he said.

He believes that achievements in a lab only represent 10 percent of total success - there’s still “a long march” to undertake.

But with the company’s slogan - “Beyond imagination, Print good life” - on the wall behind him, Xu says he is confident that Regenovo’s pursuit of longer and healthier lives will soon be realized.


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