A 3D-Printed Antidote

Researchers combine modern technology with biology fundamentals to grapple with the pandemic.

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By Jenny Chen

The first case of COVID-19 in the U.S. was confirmed on January 20, 2020. In a matter of weeks, the virus spread from coast to coast, affecting businesses, schools, and most notably, hospitals. One of the first observations made by medical workers and politicians alike was that our country was vastly underprepared to fight this disease; before long, doctors and nurses announced that they needed more ventilators to fight a virus just 100 nanometers in diameter. They needed more masks, more gloves, and more goggles. And the sad truth was, no matter how many millions of supplies were ordered, hospitals needed them within their walls way faster than these companies could crank them out.

This is where 3D-printing entered the picture. During the early stages of the pandemic, scientists utilized this fascinating technology to replenish depleted medical supplies, from face masks to ventilators. The switch from mechanical production to 3D-printing provided several advantages, especially the fact that a 3D-printed ventilator takes only a few hours to print and costs much less than the standard $50,000 mechanical ones. 3D-printing also helped researchers analyze COVID-19’s effects on our organs and tissues, as they could inject the live virus into artificial tissues and observe the outcome. Pretty soon, scientists began to wonder whether these printers could join other industries in the race for anti-viral treatments and perhaps a cure.

The task of 3D-printing involves a series of well-structured steps. First, a digital image of the desired print is created through computer-aided design (CAD). The CAD process is familiar to the students at Stuyvesant who have access to 3D printers through drafting classes or extracurriculars like the Robotics Team and Science Olympiad. Technology professor and Head Coach of the Robotics Team Joseph Blay explained how preparation is just as key to developing the finished product as its physical printing. “The student prepares their part in a processing program unique to the printer company,” Blay stated. “They check to make sure that the part is scaled properly and will print properly.” Once the printer receives the information it needs to begin printing (through a USB or direct connection with the computer), it utilizes an “additive manufacturing” technique, in which materials are layered on top of each other to create the digitized image in 3D.

While the fundamental techniques mentioned by Blay remain constant, industrial 3D-printing is significantly different from the printing of biosynthetics. Unlike the printing of aeronautical or mechanical objects, the 3D-printing of biosynthetics involves using specific biodegradable materials. These “biomaterials” are natural or synthetic substances that work with biological systems to repair, replace, and augment organs or tissues. Biomaterials can be chemically classified into four categories: metals (orthopedic implants), ceramics (bioactive implants), polymers (dental implants, prostheses), and composites (orthopedic implants, dental fillings, and internal catheters). The compatibility of these materials with living tissue makes them ideal for mimicking the various processes that occur in the human body, specifically in response to disease.

Prellis Bio Inc., located in San Francisco, CA, decided to take an approach similar to the one used to study the reproduction of the Zika virus in 2017. This process involved equipping the body with the most important weapon it needs to fight disease: antibodies. Antibodies are already used as a treatment in FDA-certified plasma transfusions, but this process is tedious and there are not enough donors to treat the infected. While effective, existing treatments are using crucial time that can no longer afford to be wasted.

Utilizing the Prellis Externalized Human Immune System (EHIS) technology, scientists at Prellis Bio 3D-printed a complete, fully functioning human immune system furnished with biosynthetic lymph nodes capable of producing COVID-19-targeting antibodies. In other words, when injected with a coronavirus vaccine-like cocktail, 960 of these artificial lymph nodes generated virus-specific antibodies. What is perhaps most astounding about this outcome is that scientists were able to successfully replicate these critical antibodies without the need for a living host.

But as with anything involving genetic material, mutations are always present in coronavirus particles. Prellis Bio plans to address these mutations by using their EHIS technology to produce “antibody libraries” that can adeptly recognize any mutations on the molecular level and combat COVID-19 appropriately. Prellis Founder and CEO Melanie Matheu, PhD states, “Novel mutations are being found in SARS-CoV-2 across the globe. It’s likely that these mutations will impact vaccine and therapeutic antibody efficacy. With our rapid antibody development platform, we can move as quickly as the virus is changing, and we’re planning to get ahead of it.”

Matheu’s remarks stress the drawbacks regarding the potency of plasma transfusions and potential vaccines: these treatments can only release antibodies to a restricted number of mutated virus particles at a given time. On the other hand, 3D-printed lymph nodes can rapidly propagate various antibodies upon request. How this fundamental idea could affect future vaccine production, however, is a question that researchers have yet to answer.

Though more experimentation is necessary to solidify these preliminary findings, the combination of modern technology and the standard knowledge of how our immune system functions is already generating miraculous results, giving hope to researchers during this arduous battle against COVID-19.