“3D bioprinting” sounds like something you would see in a science fiction movie, perhaps in “The Fifth Element” where the main character’s body is fully printed in a giant bioreactor – bones, muscles and all – or else in “Starship Troopers” where, more modestly, the technology is shown repairing a wound. Yet, 3D bioprinting (which is exactly what it sounds like – the printing of tissues or organs, by analogy to the more conventional 3D printing using plastic or glass or metal), is, since 10 years or so, an existing technology that, although somewhat experimental still, holds a vast potential to revolutionize medicine (and biology) in the future.
Aspect Biosystems, an award-winning biotech, is leading the development of this immensely exciting technology here in BC. Based in Vancouver and currently composed of a team of about 20 cell biologists, software and electrical engineers, material scientists, and business developers, the company is developing and commercializing their patented novel 3D bioprinting technology.
The BCRegMed Team sat down with Dr. Sam Wadsworth, the Chief Scientific Officer of Aspect, to discuss how the company got started, some of the exciting projects they are currently working on, and Vancouver as a biotech incubator.
The company is a local BC success story, having started at UBC in 2013. “I was doing my post-doc at the Heart and Lung Innovation Centre with Dr. Del Dorscheid” says Dr. Wadsworth. “We got a project funded [through] a multi-year grant from the National Sanitarium Association (NSA), which was focused on tissue engineering and [aimed] to develop complex 3D in vitro models of the airway for drug testing. We were interested in 3D printing parts of the tissues so we approached a lab in the Electrical and Chemical Engineering Faculty at UBC who were developing a unique 3D printing technology specifically for bioprinting”. The group, composed of Konrad Walus (currently Aspect’s CTO) and his then graduate students Tamer Mohamed (President & CEO) and Simon Beyer (CPO), became, along with Sam Wadsworth, the core founders of Aspect after deciding to commercialize the novel technology.
Aspect’s innovative bioprinting technology is based on their proprietary Lab-on-a-Printer™ design encompassing a microfluidic system, which allows multiple inputs of different cells and biomaterials and different manipulations like mixing and switching between base scaffold materials. The microfluidics approach to bioprinting has the advantage of minimizing shear stress to the cells enabling printing of fragile cells, like stem cells, without causing cell death or inappropriate differentiation of the cells, even at high printing speeds. The end result is the rapid generation of heterogeneous and functional tissues which show both physiological and pharmacological responses.
Currently, Aspect is both selling this technology and focusing on forming strategic partnerships with academia and industry by developing tissues for pre-clinical drug testing and for implantation as therapeutic tissues. In pre-clinical projects, Aspect’s team works with partners to develop and validate tissue models for drug screening. “Currently 90% of drugs fail in clinical trials due to lack of efficacy or unforeseen toxicity. Our vision, shared by our partners, is that testing experimental drugs on printed tissues will improve the predictivity of pre-clinical drug discovery, better drugs will be developed faster, and the reliance on animal testing will be reduced”, says Sam. While most of these pre-clinical projects have focused on airway disease modeling such as pulmonary fibrosis and asthma, as the company grows and expands its expertise, they are broadening their interest into other diseases and tissue types. “Contraction is an area where we have an expertise”, Sam says. ” It started with airway contraction but we are moving into vascular contraction, aortic tissues, intestinal tissues, so we are trying to model a variety of contractile diseases.”
Currently, one of Aspect’s projects is to build a cardiac tissue using either primary or stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes. This 3D printed tissue may have both pre-clinical and clinical applications. As a highly physiological tissue, it can be used for more accurately assessing potential cardiotoxicity such as drug-induced arrhythmia. It can also be used as a living tissue therapy as an implantable patch that can replace the damaged part of the heart. “We’re witnessing the emergence and growth of cell therapy, and I think tissue therapy is going to be one of the next big developments in the regenerative medicine field”.
Another clinical project is centered around developing implantable tissues for cell therapy. In partnership with DePuy Synthes, Johnson & Johnson’s orthopedic division, Aspect is developing an implantable cartilage tissue, the knee meniscus. The most commonly damaged knee tissue, the meniscus cannot regenerate in adults. In the past, the tissue was removed when damaged, but that led to osteoarthritis of the knee in the long term, says Sam. “Our goal is to 3D print a personalized replacement meniscus that can engraft into the host knee and become a permanent tissue.”
So are we close to 3D printing an actual organ? “There’s still a long way to go”, says Sam, “especially for very complex organs, but for simpler tissues like the meniscus or a tissue patch, that timeline will be much shorter. I hope we’ll see an Aspect tissue in clinical trials within the next 4-5 years.”
“Bioprinting still needs time to be broadly adopted and we need to be realistic with our expectations and the expectations of our partners. This is why in Aspect we started by 3D printing models for pre-clinical studies such as airways models. We need to start from simple structures and simple questions and then go to more complex structures.”
The broader applications of 3D printing technology can also span outside the immediate clinic. “3D printing in a non-biological sense is being used for a variety of purposes”, says Sam. “In surgery for example, MRI scans of tumors can be 3D printed to create a model to assist the surgeon. 3D printers can also be used to form implantable support structures for injuries to support the growth of a new bone.”
Will it be difficult to get implantable 3D printed tissues approved by the FDA? “The FDA now is more aware of these technologies”, says Sam. “The advent of CAR-T therapy has woken them up to regenerative medicine therapies and 3D printing, including bioprinting, is something they are looking carefully at. The FDA recently released guidelines on therapeutic products that are 3D printed, so they are definitely watching the space and they know it’s coming.” Sam says that countries like Japan have made it easier to introduce implantable therapies into the clinic. “Unlike pharmaceuticals, you can go to market in Japan with a regenerative medicine product with only Phase 1 safety data, even before you demonstrate any clinical efficacy”, he adds.
From its beginnings on the sprawling UBC campus, Aspect Biosystems has grown rapidly and is a local BC success story. When asked about Vancouver as a place to start a biotech, Dr. Wadsworth is positive. “Vancouver is still an intimate community from the business perspective, but it is very active and there are very good academic institutions here like SFU, UBC and UVic where high quality research is performed, including research in the Regenerative Medicine space, and there is a lot of local talent.” he says. The Canadian Government supports early industry-academic collaborations through grants, so Aspect also focuses on finding academic collaborations to work with locally. Vancouver in particular also benefits from its closeness to the West Coast biotech cluster.”Being in Canada is very good in that respect, with a lot of funding opportunities for new companies. Being on the West Coast, close to California, is also advantageous as there’s a lot of activity in the biotechnology industry down there.”
Quotes have been edited for length and clarity. Dr. Wadsworth was interviewed by Effimia Christidi. Effimia Christidi (Brunham lab) and Elizabeth Bulaeva (Eaves lab) co-wrote the article.