The New Yorker Life proudly presents; Kid reporter Bartu Milci interviews Yigitcan Sumbelli, a scientist working in the cutting-edge field of 3D Bioprinting.
3D printing is a fascinating process; simply put, it’s adding material on top of each other in an organized manner and creating a final product. From designing and 3d printing simple pieces like a button or a phone case at home to 3d printing houses or even rocket fuselages without the need for screws or welding, this technology has become a big part of our lives.
A recently emerging and sci-fi-like application of 3d printing is called 3d bioprinting. You heard that right! Scientists are working on creating live tissue or organs with the help of 3d printers. Yigitcan Sumbelli is working with one of the world’s leading groups in this cutting-edge field, and he answered our kid reporter Bartu Milci’s questions.
3d Printers, 3d Bioprinting and How to Become a Scientist — An Interview with Yigitcan Sumbelli by Bartu Milci
Bartu is a fifth-grader at Harker School, San Jose, California. He is a brilliant youngster who loves to read and mathematics. This is his first interview.
Yigit is a Ph.D. candidate at the Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands. He is doing his research in the Department of Biomedical Engineering under Dr. van Hest’s group. His research focuses on implementing synthetic biology and tissue engineering applications as one.
Bartu Milci: Where did you start your studies and at what point are you now?
Yiğitcan Sümbelli: First, for my bachelor’s degree I’m a chemist by training in Eskişehir in Turkey. I had my training at Anadolu University, in the same city. After that, I continued my Master’s Degree in the same university, but in the Biochemistry Program. And during my Master’s Studies, I started to work with 3D Bioprinting Studies, and that’s how I got into the area exactly. And after about 2 or 2½ years of studying 3D bioprinting during my master studies, I did an internship at Amsterdam UMC in the Netherlands. After that, I graduated from my program and I started my Ph.D. studies at the same university, but the name was Eskişehir Technical University now because they divided our university into two new universities, and suddenly I was a student at the ESTU. Very recently, I’ve started a new Ph.D. at Eindhoven Technical University in the Netherlands. So, my time after I graduated with my master’s was just a period of time while I was preparing myself to start a new Ph.D. journey in someplace outside of Turkey.
B: Congratulations on the Ph.D.
Y: Thank you.
B: Did you pick a school because you were interested in 3D bioprinting already, or did you become interested afterward?
Y: That’s a good question. Well, the second one is the correct answer for me because when I started my chemistry studies in university, there wasn’t anything related to 3D bioprinting or any related technological facilities in there. After about 6 or 7 years, my supervisors bought a 3D bioprinter to the laboratory, and that’s how I started to gain interest in that particular subject. Not only 3D bioprinting but also some other related techniques you can use in tissue engineering applications.
B: It’s cool that your supervisor bought a 3D bioprinter.
Y: Yes, I was very lucky with that because it’s an expensive device. Not everyone can buy that device in their laboratory. So, I was very, very lucky with that.
B: Did someone inspire you to start doing 3D bioprinting, or did you get interested in yourself?
Y: When I first heard that my supervisors were buying that device, I just got really excited because I knew about 3D printing studies. In theory, you can print anything you want with a 3D printer. And when I heard that they were buying a 3D bioprinter, I started to think about that; If I can print anything with a 3D printer, in theory, I should be able to print any organ or tissue with a 3D bioprinter. That’s when I started to get really interested in the area.
B: So, the supervisors that bought the 3D bioprinter and put it in the laboratory inspired you to do this?
Y: Well, kind of. I was already reading some literature, academic journals, and papers. I wasn’t really unfamiliar with the area. I knew some parts of the area. I can say that thanks to their purchase of the device I started to gain interest.
B: Before I did this interview, I researched and found a couple of videos where Anthony Atala was giving lectures, and I got very interested after seeing his speeches. Currently, which people and scientists have had an influence on you?
Y: Yes, exactly, Dr. Atala was the one. Maybe you remember, I mentioned my first internship in Amsterdam. I actually had a chance to work with a scientist who was worked with Dr. Atala himself at the Wake Forest Regenerative Medicine Institute in the USA. Again, it was a lucky moment for me because I wasn’t aware of that before. I just applied for an internship, and after I got accepted to that group, I learned that my supervisor will be working with Dr. Atala for a year before my arrival. Other than Dr. Atala, I would say Dr. Robert Langer. He is kind of the big guy in the area. Some might say he is one of the founders of the tissue engineering area. And maybe you will encounter a picture if you google tissue engineering; you might see a picture of a mouse carrying an ear on its back. Dr. Langer was one of the ones who were doing that study. And also, apart from these two, there is also one scientist at UCLA (at the moment), Dr. Ali Khademhosseini. He is kind of a big guy in the area again. I might say these three people are my role models.
B: How new is 3D bioprinting?
Y: In science, generally, “new” is a time span of about decades. Something that’s 30 years old is considered new in science. Starting from that point, we can say that tissue engineering is kind of new. But tissue engineering is a little bit older than 3D bioprinting; tissue engineering has started about 50 or 70 years ago. But 3D bioprinting started about 20, less than 30, years ago. So, it is kind of new.
B: It’s pretty new.
How do 3D Bioprinters work and How do 3d Bioprinters Make Tissue and Organs?
B: How do you make organs using 3D bioprinters and what materials do you use?
Y: First of all, we are made up of cells. With keeping that in mind, let’s say you want to 3D bioprint an ear model or a nose model. Then you have to use some ear cells or nose cells which are cartilage cells. So, first, you have to use a specific cell. Additionally, you have to consider the softness of the tissue you have to create. Let’s compare a bone and an ear. The ear tissue is much softer than the bone tissue. So, if you want to print bone tissue, then you can’t use the same material you use when you are trying to create an ear model. Then, you have to do some specific additional experiments. You have to add some chemicals into your tissue model which will allow your tissue to hold together for a longer period of time. Let’s say about 28 days or maybe 21 days. In that time period, your cells will start dividing, 2, 4, 8, 16, and much more, and they will start to create a specific tissue because they are specific cells. So, if you’re using an ear cell, you can say that, in theory, your ear cells will divide and after 21 days or 28 days, you will have an ear model. And you have to use a soft material where you will put your cells into at the beginning because the ear is a soft tissue. We are using something called polymers which are like plastics. You don’t want to eat plastic materials in real life, but you can eat gelatin. Gelatin is also a polymeric material. So, we can use a gelatin-like material. So, starting from zero, I take some specific cells, I put them in some gelatin-like materials, and then I 3D bioprint those gelatin-like materials with the cells for the tissue model which I want to create, let’s say an ear model. And if I wait for a specific period of time, in theory, I will have the tissue I want to create.
B: So, how you make the material is taking the cells, making the tissue you want, then forming the tissue into the type of organ you want like an ear.
Y: Well, the material is helping the cells. The cells are the real workers. The cells are producing something (a matrix in between them) and that matrix is helping for the creation of the tissue.
B: When you are connecting the organs, do you do surgery or is there another method that you use?
Y: We’re at a point where we can’t do that. The ear is a simpler tissue rather than, let’s say, a kidney. We can create an ear model or a nose model, but we can’t create a whole, fully functional organ at the moment. Because the area is kind of new. And that’s one of the major problems we’re trying to solve. There isn’t a real clinical application at the moment apart from some skin models, or maybe Dr. Atala’s studies, which was a bladder model. It’s a much simpler organ than a liver. Also, some scientists are trying to create some bone models because it’s a simpler tissue.
B: Because they don’t move.
Y: Exactly. Also, the real problem is your tissue shouldn’t contain any vascularization. Actually, it has to contain vascularization, vascular tissue, but we can’t do that at the moment because vascular tissue is different from your organ’s tissue, let’s say cartilage or bone. Vascular tissue is a different type of tissue, and bone tissue is a different type of tissue. That means there are some vascular cells and some bone cells, which are different cells. When you combine them, it doesn’t work, the different types of cells don’t like each other. They like to be in an environment they know. If you are using at least 2 types of cells, it’s really hard, it’s something we cannot achieve at the moment.
B: Do you only make organs for humans, or do you also make them for animals?
Y: That’s a really good question. There are two main goals in tissue engineering studies. One is to create some fully functional tissues or organs. And the other goal is to be able to create some animal models because, at the moment, scientists are testing newly developed drugs on animals like mice or rabbits or maybe even monkeys. And that’s something we don’t want to do. To avoid that, we are trying to create some tissue models that we can test the newly developed drugs on. We are trying to avoid the usage of animals in testing experiments.
B: So, you’re using the animals to test, but not necessarily using the organs to try to heal the animals from any wounds or such.
Y: Not at the moment.
B: Is there a difference between the organs of babies, children, and adults, and if so, is one of them harder to make and transfer into the human than the rest?
Y: That’s a really good question and a tough one actually. I’m not really 100% sure, you have to keep that in mind before reading my comment, but I wouldn’t say the molecular structure or cellular structure of two organs, one from a baby and one from an adult, would be different. I don’t think they’re different.
B: I would think that the organs in a baby would be smaller than the ones in an adult.
Y: Exactly, they are much smaller than an adult.
B: So, does the size of the organ make it easier or harder to put the organ into a human or make the organ? I’m guessing if the organ was smaller, it would take less time to make the organ because you would need less material and less time to actually make it. But since it’s smaller, would it be harder to put it in or easier?
Y: Exactly, you are correct on both of your comments. Well, it would be much easier to create because you would need less volume of your gelatin-like material and your cell numbers to create that tissue or organ. But, at the same time, it would be harder to 3D bioprint it because your device’s resolution would be much higher than when you are creating a larger tissue.
B: Which organ is the one that most people need, or is it fairly equal?
Y: The most needed organ is, at the moment, your kidneys; some sick people need to go to the hospital 4 or 5 times a week to filter their blood because your kidneys are doing that, and theirs cannot. That’s why they are using a device called a dialysis machine because their kidneys aren’t fully functioning. That is the most necessary organ at the moment as far as I know. The reason for that is not living a healthy life, smoking, or drinking heavily.
B: What is the predicted time when organs can be easily made and put into humans?
Y: The surgery part would definitely be easier, the implantation of the fully developed organ to the patient should be very easy. But the real problem is that, unfortunately, it’s not a near-future from now. I would say we are far from that at least about 20 or 30 years.
B: So, that would be in some people’s life span, actually.
Y: Yes, you might say that because if you’re able to print the necessary organ at the right size in under a month, then your life span would be longer than today’s.
B: I’m guessing a lot of people die from not being treated well or health problems and aging, but also from not getting the organs they need. And, again, in the video with Anthony Atala, I’m pretty sure in one of them he said that every 30 seconds someone dies of problems with not getting organs they need.
Y: Exactly, and think about that, we are living in a really interesting time because of theCOVID-19 pandemic. And it affects your lungs. And think about that, if we were able to 3D bioprint lungs, then a major problem would have been solved.
B: Also, I guess that would help in wildfires because they do a lot of damage to the lungs.
Y: Exactly. And not only for the lungs. Let’s say, if you burn your skin, it’s very hard to replace that skin with a new one, so if you were able to 3D bioprint the skin tissue, the problem would be solved. But don’t forget, they’re all just theories at the moment. That’s the main goal, but we are not able to do that.
B: What are you researching currently and recently?
Y: Currently, I am not doing anything because I am leaving my old program in Turkey and starting a new one in the Netherlands. But I was in Germany about 2 months ago, I stayed there for a couple of months, and I actually did something really interesting. We were talking about the living cells; you have to use a real cell to create tissue. Well, what I did in Germany, and what I will be trying during my new PhD in Eindhoven, I will try to use some synthetic cells, not the real ones but some particles, some little droplets that can act like real cells. I’ll try that but I’m not sure whether it will work or not, it really excites me at the moment.
B: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to do this interview.
Y: It was really enjoyable for me.
Originally published at https://newyorkerlife.com on January 1, 2022.