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Takeaways From The MIT Essential Knowledge Series on Biofabrication


Biofabrication is the simple process of building something from biological materials. When we think of building things, we think of metals, wood, and often harmful plastics. Biofabrication is simply building with living plant or animal cells and tissues.


There are a lot of questions that come to the surface when we consider "naturally sourced" or lab-created biological materials. Including which way of building is more harmful to the environment and humans. But asking these profound questions could also drastically change the world as we know it. An example is, would a combination of building with synthetic and biological materials help humans design advanced artificial intelligence that is considered sentient?


Biofabrication has the potential to drastically change our world for the greater good of all beings. Still, it also has the potential to do an incredible amount of damage because of unknown risks associated with genetic modification and the engineering of biological materials. This article summarizes Ritu Raman's book on Biofabrication from the MIT Essential Press Knowledge Series.


The Case For Biofabrication


A smartphone can dim its brightness based on sensory inputs that detect the brightness of its environment, but if the phone is dropped and the screen cracks, it remains cracked. It cannot repair itself like the human body does when you cut your finger. This is because your cell phone is not built from living materials but could be one day.


Although we are nowhere near creating a biological machine with the capabilities of a phone screen repairing itself with biological matter, we have begun understanding how to manipulate genetic material and even build with it. For example, Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines protect us against covid, and 3D-printed artificial heart valves are made from a patient's own cells that grow as the individual ages.


There are three main themes discussed in Ritu Ramens' book that will have a direct impact on all of us over the next ten years. From approving life-saving drugs in record time by testing them on "organs-on-a-chip" to a more sustainable future with lab-grown meat, there is much to look forward to with biofabrication.


Organs-on-a-Chip


The number one reason the FDA does not approve life-saving drugs is the effects of these drugs and the toxicity of the liver. Therefore, an inexpensive and ethical way to test potential drugs' impacts on the human liver is needed.


The lab of Sangeeta Bhatia, a BioMedical Engineer, developed a liver-on-a-chip model made using human liver cells and demonstrated its efficacy in representing the human liver in both healthy and diseased states. The lab tested common over-the-counter drugs like aspirin and other prescription medication on the liver-on-the-chip and found that the toxicity levels were similar to that of a natural human liver. This demonstrated that a liver-on-a-chip could one day be a more ethical and cost-effective way to test new drugs that the FDA would approve.


Organ-on-a-chip technology could also significantly reduce the need for and prevalence of animal testing in the next coming years. For example, Emulate, a new age biomedical technology company, has designed multiple organs-on-a-chip models, including, Kidney-Chip, Brian-Chip, Lung-Chip and many more.


Lab Grown Meat


The North American diet consists of meat in almost every meal, which was not scalable for traditional farming, and this high consumption of meat gave birth to factory farming. Many argue that factory farming is not sustainable, especially as the world's population will exceed 10 billion by 2050.


There are many pros to limiting the need for factory farming, including eliminating pollution derived from large-scale animal enclosures, food-borne illnesses and the unethical treatment of animals in those environments. Because of these reasons, meat alternatives like Beyond Burger, which is plant-based, have seen growing popularity, even among those who are not vegetarian. Engineered meat and other animal-derived products have become of significant interest to the biofabrication community in recent years.


Mark Post's lab created the first "cell culture-derived hamburger" in 2013. Its debut and taste test aired live on television. The burger cost $300,000 to develop, and it was financed by one of the co-founders of Google, Sergey Brin. Today, cell-cultured chicken called Eat Just is already being sold in Singapore. If you want a better understanding of how cultured chicken is created, watch this interactive explanation of the process on the Good Meats website.


As a vegetarian, I am still less inclined to try lab-grown meat, as meat has not been part of my diet in over ten years. However, lab-grown leather does pique my interest as I've always felt guilty about purchasing leather products. VitroLabs Inc claims that a single biopsy from one cow can make millions of handbags while that cow continues to enjoy a happy cruel-free life. Kering, the company that owns luxury brands like Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, is one of VitroLabs top investors, which tells you that lab-grown leather will likely have a prominent place in our future.


Hybrid Machines Built with Biological Materials


We are just at the beginning stages of building robots with both synthetic and biological materials. However, foundational research in this new field has created excitement for a promising future. Kevin Kit Parker and his lab have been a leader in the early discoveries, including creating a swimming jellyfish out of lab-created rat cardiac material and a fully controllable robotic ray that uses light-activated rat muscle cells to swim.


The future of artificially intelligent robots will be able to do things like exercise to get stronger or heal from cuts or amputations. The ultimate goal of artificial intelligence is to create consciousness, and many believe that the only way to do so is with hybrid machines that incorporate both biological and synthetic material. Although current developments are promising, significant technical challenges still need to be addressed before biological robots become more broadly researched.


How Biofabrication Can Change Our World


Organs-on-a-chips could not only eliminate animal testing but also dramatically increase the speed at which drugs can be approved and improve our ability to diagnose and treat human diseases accurately. Lab-grown meat promises a future of sustainable, safe, affordable, ethical, and environmentally conscious alternatives to factory farming. Lastly, hybrid machines could potentially change the pace of emotionally intelligent artificial intelligence.


However, these early developments in biofabrication have significant costs associated with them, like the 300,000 dollar hamburger. Eventually, like all new technology, the costs will become more feasible as more and more people and companies become involved in biofabrication.


Although many pros are associated with biofabrication, such as lab-grown animal tissue, most of the public is resistant to consuming lab-grown meat. Further regulation, education, and development are needed before it can be a successful product in the market. Plant-based proteins also took significant time and proper marketing to become a popular choice for vegetarians and meat eaters. Increased popularity in cellular agriculture could eventually solve the world's hunger and climate crises.


The future of biofabrication is exciting, and I am highly anticipating the positive effects on the environment and humanity in the near future. If you are interested in reading more from Ritu Raman, a Biomedical and Mechanical Engineer, she has written many publications that can be viewed on her website.


In closing, and in Ritu Raman's own words, "as we start to build with biology, we may also deepen our appreciation for our planet, which is the sophisticated product of natural forces building with biology for eons. Perhaps we will find that the answers we seek have been hiding in plain sight, in every part of the world around us, all along."


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