While attending The University of British Columbia (UBC), Tamer Mohamed, along with fellow graduate student Simon Beyer, began working at the Walus Laboratory on the development of a novel microfluidics-based bioprinting platform that could be used to fabricate human tissue constructs. One of the main reasons for their innovation was to potentially replace animal models in drug testing, which are costly, time-consuming and can have poor predictive accuracy. A few years went by and the two went on to win a MEMSCAP Design Award for their pioneering creation (the Lab-on-a-Printer Bioprinter) which would later become the basis for their startup, Aspect Biosystems. The UBC spinoff company was founded by Mohamed, Beyer, Konrad Walus (associate professor at UBC and head of the Walus Lab), and Sam Wadsworth, to turn their idea into a commercial product. The company quickly began providing pharmaceutical companies with high-efficacy tissue models that better mimic in vivo conditions, looking to improve the predictive accuracy of the front end drug discovery process. 3DPrint.com spoke to Mohamed to learn about his successful transition from graduate student to CEO of Aspect Biosystems.
What was the inspiration behind Aspect Biosystems?
Aspect Biosystems was established with the vision of leveraging advancements in biology, microfluidics, and 3D printing to create technology-enabled therapeutics that will ultimately have a meaningful impact on patients. We are marrying our deep knowledge of human biology with cutting-edge 3D printing technology to create advanced tissue therapeutics. Our story started almost a decade ago so we’ve spent years developing our foundational microfluidic bioprinting technology and are now applying our platform technology to create functional tissues, both internally through our proprietary programs, and with our partners around the world.
Can you tell me about the company’s growth model?
Platform technologies often have the advantage of flexibility, as they could allow you to pursue multiple applications. This also presents a challenge though, in that it is easy to become unfocused. At Aspect, we’ve built a strategy that allows us to both focus and diversify. Internally, we are advancing proprietary tissue programs in regenerative medicine. But we also recognize that to achieve our vision of enabling human tissues on demand, we can’t work alone. By providing access to our technology to partners around the world, we are able to create a network effect and tap into specific domain expertise. This allows our technology to be applied to a wide range of research purposes externally, without detracting resources or focus from our specific tissue programs internally. We collaborate with academia and industry on specific applications that allow us to fuel our growth and help generate revenue and a robust innovation pipeline.
How much has Aspect grown?
Aspect is the first and only company to leverage microfluidics to create functional tissue, and we are proud to pioneer this approach. Academically, we were one of the first groups in the world to print cells while at the UBC, so we see ourselves as pioneers in both bioprinting and platforms for creating tissue therapeutics. Five years ago, we had four full-time employees. Today we have a team of over 40 people focused on our mission and over 20 collaborations globally. We have attracted smart venture capital, partnered with some of the biggest names in our industry, and made major breakthroughs in applying our technology to create functional tissues. It is a great sign that, year-after-year, we continue to raise the bar. It is an even better sign that I believe the best is yet to come.
What will the applications of this technology be in pharmaceutical research and drug trials?
I believe the opportunity with the highest value and best poised to make a significant impact on the pharmaceutical space is disease modeling. Using 3D bioprinting technology allows us to model diseases in a human-relevant system that would otherwise be difficult to study in animals or less sophisticated in vitro models. For example, working with GSK and Merck, we are leveraging our microfluidic 3D bioprinting platform to create physiologically-relevant 3D tissues containing patient-derived cells to assess the efficacy of anti-cancer drugs and to predict a patient’s response to treatment. This partnered program could unlock the discovery of novel therapeutic targets and the development of immuno-oncology therapeutics.
Would you tell us more about Aspect’s current and future work?
Our current internal programs are focused on orthopedic and metabolic diseases. On the orthopedic side, we are leveraging our deep knowledge of musculoskeletal biology and biomaterials to create knee meniscal replacements. On the metabolic side, we are focused on liver tissue and creating a therapeutic tissue for Type 1 diabetes. Externally, our partners around the world are using our 3D bioprinting technology to advance research in the brain, lungs, heart, pancreas, and kidneys, just to name a few. By being both focused internally and diversified externally, we are building a robust pipeline for the future. Our end goal is to enable the creation of human tissues on demand, and we know that we can’t do it alone. Our network of academic researchers and industry partners are key to making our vision a reality.
How fast is the technology moving towards a future with lab-made functional organs?
We are focused on identifying specific diseases or biological malfunction inside the body and rationally designing advanced tissue therapeutics that address these areas of unmet medical need. So, while we may not actually be making something that looks exactly like an organ, we are recreating the biological function that has been lost or damaged to address the problem. For example, someone with Type 1 diabetes has a pancreas that is unable to perform the vital function of creating insulin. We don’t necessarily need to engineer something for them that looks exactly like a pancreas – instead, we are creating an implantable therapeutic tissue that replaces function that has been lost. In this case, that function is sensing glucose levels in the blood and biologically releasing insulin in response. This is an example of one of our internal programs – a bioengineered pancreatic tissue therapeutic that restores a critical function that been lost due to an autoimmune disease.
Is Canada a great place to develop a bioprinting company?
Canada has a long and rich history in the field of regenerative medicine, going back to the discovery of stem cells in the 1960s. As a country, we have an opportunity to be a global leader in the field. At Aspect, we are proud to be part of these efforts. We are in ongoing discussions with different government groups as to how we can play a role in helping to lead the charge and the government has been embracing that. We have seen significant federal and provincial support for innovation and public/private partnerships, which definitely help stimulate growth in the field.
How disruptive is the technology you created?
[Images: Aspect Biosystems and Tamer Mohamed]
By combining microfluidics with 3D printing, we are disrupting tissue engineering. We are able to programmatically process multiple cells and biologically-relevant materials in high-throughput to rationally design and produce functional tissues. We are constantly integrating new microfluidic processing units within our printhead technology and leveraging continuous advancements in the “lab-on-a-chip” space. With our microfluidic technology, we are generating a large amount of data. By using this data and machine learning, we are improving the quality and automation of the biomanufacturing process.
Ultimately, bioprinting is only as good as our understanding of biology – and our understanding of biology is growing wider and deeper. We are combining state-of-the-art stem cell science with our microfluidic 3D printing technology to create tissue therapeutics. For example, we are combining insulin-secreting cells derived from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) with our printing technology to create therapeutic tissues for patients with Type 1 diabetes.
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