Vancouver company develops 3-D printing of human tissue

You may have heard of printing on demand.

A Vancouver startup, Aspect Biosystems, is putting a sci-fi twist on that, printing human tissues on demand.

The company is creating human body tissue using 3-D printing, using a technology that provides more effective ways to test new drugs and could lead to 3-D bioprinting of entire organs.

Aspect, a spinoff of the University of B.C., which has received early funding from UBC’s Seed Fund and mentorship from entrepreneurship@UBC, recently took second place in a B.C. Innovation-New Ventures competition. It was founded by a group of university researchers who have created their own 3-D bioprinting technology in which cells are combined and suspended in hydrogel in a liquid form. The liquid is fed into a printer, just as plastic filament is fed into a 3-D printer to create living 3-D structures. The functional living human tissue models are created layer by layer.

“We have developed very innovative and differentiated bioprinting,” said Aspect co-founder Konrad Walus, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at UBC, who has been working with his research group developing systems for bioprinting for the past eight years. “We are using 3-D printing techniques but we can do 3-D printing of living structures.”

Here is a podcast in which Professor Walus talks about Aspect Biosystem’s 3-D printing technology.

The 3-D structure that is printed out has the stiffness of tissue and, once printed, goes into an incubator to be cultured, Walus said.

“Over time it develops full biological functions,” he said. “Once you have it printed, the cells take over and do their job.”

Printing human tissue to be used for testing new drugs is only the first goal for the company.

“Our business strategy is to work up from the lower-hanging fruit and definitely the drug development market is the best and most strategic opportunity for us in the short term,” Walus said.

“Going forward, the opportunity in personalized medicine will be a big one and going even further than that, we open up the doors to making implantable structures — these could be parts of organs rather than full organs,” said Walus, who co-founded the company about a year ago with Sam Wadsworth, Simon Beyer and Tamer Mohamed.

“In the future if everything worked out splendidly, one could imagine making replacement organs.”

Human tissue can be more effective in predicting a drug’s success than testing on animals. The first tests Aspect is conducting are on drugs for airway fibrosis, a disease that causes uncontrolled scarring of the lungs.

“Patients with airway fibrosis have an expected lifetime of only five years without a transplant,” Walus said. “There are really no known cures for it.

“Interestingly, there are over 100 cures for airway fibrosis in a mouse. It is easy to get a false positive doing a mouse study. This is exactly where an animal model fails to predict the human response.”

Walus said the technology can reduce the need for animal studies and reduce the number of drugs being developed that are never going to work.

“We can also identify drug candidates that may actually work but failed in pre-clinical development because of the lack of appropriate and relevant models,” said Walus.

In effect 3D printing of human tissues could give drug researchers a test subject that is human — without having to carry out tests on a real person. In the case of the airway fibrosis tests, the 3D printing allows the creation of the human tissues necessary to test the effectiveness of drugs.

“We’re creating the equivalent of an airway wall and using that to develop a model of airway fibrosis,” Walus said. “We can make a healthy airway and we can trigger it to be a diseased airway and then assault that model with drug candidates for airway fibrosis.

“We want to demonstrate our models are good predictors of the human response.”

The technology can be used to create models for a variety of different diseases and Walus said over time they can develop a basic system response. For example, using models of the kidney and the airway, tests could be carried out to see if an airway drug would give the patient kidney problems.

“You want to know toxicity as well as efficacy,” said Walus.

As an example of personalized medicine, Walus said cells from a cancerous tumour in a patient could be used to print a replica tumour that could be used to test possible drug treatments.

“That model would be more predictive of your response,” said Walus. “Right now people are using a cocktail of drugs in treating cancers.

“Maybe you could reduce the cocktail and have less side effects.”