Browsing articles from "May, 2015"
May 25, 2015

Could Bioprinting Save the Rhino?


As a species, humans are certainly a success.  We’ve spread around the planet, can live in almost any environment and can achieve pretty much whatever we put our minds to.  Unfortunately, sometimes this results in collateral damages, with entire species being wiped out by our actions within the very environment we share.  More dangerous than this is when we go out of our way to hunt something, since we are very good at topping the food chain.

The rhino has been a target of various poaching groups for hundreds of years, but as demand rises and the technology available continues to improve, it fights a losing battle against an army of poachers ready to reap the considerable rewards.  Rhino horn sells for $30,000 a pound on the black market and is popular for its ornamental usage or in various herbal medicines as a cure-all ingredient.  As a result the numbers drop every year, with the rhino hitting the critically endangered list and showing no signs of removal any time soon- other than extinction.

Lots of approaches have been tried to save the rhino, but bioprinting is a new one.  Pembient, a startup in Seattle, have started working on a long term solution.  They want to print the rhino horn using a 3D-printer.  Using keratin as the base they aim to grow a biologically identical alternative to rhino horn, and flood the market with a cheaper alternative which will cut the demand for the real thing- saving the rhino population in the process.

The issue will then be getting the product to market in the countries where rhino horn is popular- places like China and Vietnam where a growing middle class have been responsible for the increasing consumption in the past two decades.  Whether or not the locals will accept an artificial alternative is a different matter.  Given that science has proven that rhino horn has absolutely no actual health benefits it is a matter of winning a war of hearts and minds to get people to switch to the alternative, and the placebo effect might not be quite as strong when it’s been grown in a lab.

Pembient hope to move onto elephant ivory and tiger bones if rhino horn is a success.  3D printing alone probably won’t save the rhino, but it certainly could make a difference, and every little helps when failure isn’t an option.