UBC venture has a new approach to 3D bioprinting to create human cells for drug trials
The first thing that popped into Simon Beyer’s mind when he heard about 3D bio-printing was a scene from the 1997 film The Fifth Element where scientists reconstruct an entire person from just a hand. “It sounds like science fiction,” says the UBC PhD student and one of the founders of Aspect Biosystems, a company that is using 3D printing technology to create human tissue.
3D printing was invented in the 1980s and can now make everything from prosthetic limbs to fashion accessories. But the greatest potential of this new technology may lie in the power to print human parts. While a handful of research groups worldwide have had minor successes printing human tissues, current technology is hard to adapt for biological purposes.
Now a group of researchers based out of Konrad Walus’ Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering lab think they have the right formula. And the most immediate impact might be to provide a new and better way to test drugs. Ultimately this kind of work could lead to growing organs for human transplant.
Finding new pharmaceuticals
Developing a new drug costs upward of $4 billion, a fee that gets passed on to patients. Even after extensive testing in the lab and on animals, only a handful of drugs are successful enough to go to clinical trial in humans. Astonishingly, the failure rate of drugs in clinical trials is 90 per cent because humans and animals often respond differently. This expensive process can take over a decade.
“There are 200 ways to cure pulmonary fibrosis in mice but not a single cure for the disease in humans,” says Sam Wadsworth, co-founder and director of biology of Aspect Biosystems. He tries to find new ways to grow cells for research into respiratory illnesses.
Aspect researchers expect to show that bio-printed tissues can help better predict whether a drug will be effective on people, at less cost.
Wadsworth and his colleagues have discovered a technique for growing three-dimensional human airway tissues that almost exactly replicate the lung wall. Compared to the standard technique of growing sheets of cells in a dish or test tube, this is a major improvement.
“We use our airway cultures to model a disease where the animal models have been poor predictors for drug discovery,” says Wadsworth, who is also a research associate at the Institute for Heart and Lung Health at St. Paul’s Hospital where he works on the BRONCH project. “Pulmonary fibrosis is a rare but terrible disease. If you don’t get a transplant, you’ll die.”
Printing human tissue
Most 3D printers spit out droplets of liquid that form small lumps using inkjet technology. The lumps are stacked on top of one another to create 3D structures. Keeping cells alive for this process is a challenge – it takes too much time and the liquid is spit out too forcefully.
“What we’re doing is totally different. We aren’t building on existing 3D printing technology,” says Beyer.
Their technique uses a microfluidic chip to generate a very thin gel fibre loaded with cells. The gel fibre is stacked into a 3D structure layer-by-layer and then incubated for several weeks to develop into tissue.
One day the researchers hope to build more complex tissues for testing drugs on more complex systems that imitate the human body.
For now, the team prints the airway tissues from Wadsworth’s research and will soon use it to test drugs that have already gone through clinical trial.
A helping hand
Aspect Biosystems consists of three engineers and two biologists who relied on guidance from the entrepreuneurship@UBC program. Mentors explained what they needed to do to create a company and how to move forward with their idea.
“It got us out there and talking to potential customers,” says Beyer. We learned that you couldn’t just create something and expect people to buy it. You have to find out what they need.”
Drug companies told the group they were looking for models that would better predict drug outcomes and models that could address specific results. The team thinks their 3D bioprinting technique could be the answer.
“Our goal is for this technology to have an impact and provide benefits to Canadians and society in general,” says Beyer.