In a small clean room tucked into the back of San Diego–based startup Organovo, Chirag Khatiwala is building a thin layer of human skeletal muscle. He inserts a cartridge of specially prepared muscle cells into a 3-D printer, which then deposits them in uniform, closely spaced lines in a petri dish. This arrangement allows the cells to grow and interact until they form working muscle tissue that is nearly indistinguishable from something removed from a human subject.
The technology could fill a critical need. Many potential drugs that seem promising when tested in cell cultures or animals fail in clinical trials because cultures and animals are very different from human tissue. Because Organovo's product is so similar to human tissue, it could help researchers identify drugs that will fail long before they reach clinical trials, potentially saving drug companies billions of dollars. So far, Organovo has built tissue of several types, including cardiac muscle, lung, and blood vessels.