Professor Konrad Walus has been doing weird things with printers since 2006. Working in the lab, he found that living cells printed using inkjet technology could not only survive the printing process but retain their biological function as well. This led him to wonder about the potential for printers to recreate organic structures by patterning cells in layers, similar to how plastic materials can be used to build up layered structures in regular 3D printing.
“Bio-printing” living tissue would require some out-of-the-box thinking, however, since existing 3D printing technology would need to be heavily modified. Walus needed to mix and print the right proportion of cells, extracellular matrix (a mesh of macromolecules that act as a cell scaffold), and growth compounds. This way, the 3D-printed cellular product would develop normally after being placed in an incubator.
Through an NSERC-funded research project, his idea succeeded. With the basic research secured, the next step was to commercialize the idea, and in 2013, Aspect Biosystems was born.
The BC start-up claims its technology will advance our understanding of fundamental biology, disease research, and regenerative medicine, as well as assist with the development of new therapies. It may even one day lead to implantable printed organs, which could bypass the need for donations and save many lives.
Aspect’s team is now composed of over 35 people, and they have partnered with leading pharmaceutical companies and researchers worldwide.
3D human tissue models could accelerate preclinical research
The applications of this technology are many, but central is its use with pre-clinical drug research. By providing researchers with 3D-printed human tissue models that accurately replicate the structure and function of human organs, scientists could theoretically test new drug candidates on a more relevant test subject than a mouse or a rat. This has the potential to not only accelerate the pre-human testing phase of drug development, but also to move us away from the controversial practice of animal testing.
Many drug candidates fail because we need to perform pre-clinical tests in petri dishes and on animals to test for efficacy and safety first. While these models often give us a good sense of what to expect, they are not always accurate to how a drug would react in a human environment.
Airway fibrosis involves the progressive scarring of the airway which causes the patient to suffocate within five years of their diagnosis. The disease mechanism features complex interactions between cell types that cannot be accurately reproduced in a 2D petri dish environment.
Aspect has pitched in and produced two human airway tissues — one to model fibrosis and another that models the contraction of the muscle that surrounds the airway during the likes of an asthma attack. Research is underway to validate that the airway’s function and the disease mechanism are both expressed, opening the floor to numerous drug candidates.
Implantable printed organs?
The holy grail for Aspect, however, concerns the science fiction-sounding world of implantable printed organs.
Solid foundational work has been done on this front: a Manchester, UK team managed to create functional human kidney tissue through their experiments. Elsewhere, Prellis Biologics succeeded in developing functional capillary structures, “…the most vital piece of the puzzle in the quest to print viable hearts, livers, [and] kidneys,” according to Prellis CEO Melanie Mathieu.
In 2018, 223 Canadians died while on waiting lists for an organ transplant. Achieving rapidly developed, implantable substitutes could therefore save countless lives at home and globally.
While Walus is optimistic about this dream, he acknowledges we still have a long way to go.
“In the long term, we hope to be able to print functional human organs, using cells from a biopsy as well as stem cell technology,” Walus explained. “We’re a long way away from this reality since the technology isn’t there yet, and there will undoubtedly be considerable regulatory and ethical approval hurdles to overcome first.”