In the coming decade, the 3D bioprinting community could witness some of the most important technology advancements we have ever seen. Researchers, laboratories, universities, companies and the young generations of future professionals are preparing to become a part of this incredible change. All over the world, startups and established companies are partnering with dozens of universities at a time to engineer tissue, generate the best-personalized medicine available and change the drug discovery industry. In Canada, one company is moving forward quite rapidly, tackling tissue therapy and drug creation. Vancouver-based Aspect Biosystems is pioneering microfluidic 3D bioprinting of living human tissue.
Aspect Biosystems is a University of British Columbia (UBC) spinoff startup that made waves by announcing its ability to use live human cells to create and build living human tissue. It was founded in November 2013 by a group of university researchers who went on to create their own 3D bioprinting technology in which cells are combined and suspended in a liquid form hydrogel to create functional living human tissue models.
Tamer Mohamed, Konrad Walus, Sam Wadsworth, and Simon Beyer originally received funding from UBC’s Seed Fund (which supports early-stage startups) and used it wisely to develop their disruptive 3D bioprinting platform based on its proprietary Lab-on-a-Printer technology, (now called microfluidic 3D bioprinting technology) capable of creating living human tissues on demand for broad applications in the life sciences. The platform is a brand new way of bioprinting which consists of a series of modular microfluidic printhead cartridges created for tissue design. Using coaxial flow focusing, a cell-laden biological fiber is generated within the cartridge and printed into a 3D structure. These 3D tissue constructs are expected to provide an improved physiological model when compared to current in-vitro 2D cell cultures, and therefore, should provide more meaningful results. The microfluidic approach enables researchers to create heterogeneous 3D tissues, deposit multiple bioinks from a single nozzle and precisely control the tissue microenvironment.
The technology was originally developed at the Walus Lab founded fifteen years ago by Walus, who is also a professor at UBC. Researchers and students at the lab, which is harbored within the Faculty of Applied Science and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UBC, are working to create technology that will enable further narrowing down of drug candidates prior to clinical trials and a reduction in the cost of the most expensive step of drug development.
The company began developing 3D printed human tissue specifically for the testing of drugs by pharmaceutical firms to improve the predictive accuracy of the pre-clinical drug discovery process. But printing human tissue to be used for testing new drugs is only the first goal – they are working to bring their therapeutic tissues to the clinic to make an impact on patients’ lives. The key is their technology, which is enabling advances in fundamental biology, drug development through novel pre-clinical models, and regenerative medicine.
Just a year after being founded, Aspect created tissue using their biotechnology and driven by the consideration that human tissue can be more effective in predicting a drug’s success than testing on animals. The first tests were conducted on drugs for airway fibrosis, a disease that causes uncontrolled scarring of the lungs, and for which there is no cure. The founders consider that human tissue can be more effective in predicting a drug’s success than testing on animals.
Among other achievements, the biotech startup partnered with Johnson & Johnson to produce meniscus tissue from biocompatible materials; developed a predictive and human-relevant liver tissue platform in collaboration with JSR Corporation to accelerate the development of new medicines; partnering with InSCREENeX to develop 3D printed contractile tissue for pharmaceutical testing, and creating personalized neural tissues with the University of Victoria, just to name a few.
This year, the company’s 3D RX1 bioprinter is being used by biologists to generate advanced pulmonary tissues to discover novel therapeutic strategies that have the potential to positively impact the lives of millions of patients with chronic lung diseases. In addition, the company is crafting a portfolio of 3D bioprinted human tissues that will, one day, be available on-demand for various clinical uses. With this bioprinter, biologists can hopefully create complex, functional tissue for research purposes. Currently, Aspect is trying to develop muscle tissue as well as liver tissue and pancreatic tissue for Type 1 diabetes.
Initially launching with 10 employees, the company now has over 50 and has raised a total of $3.7 million in funding In 2018. Earlier this year, Aspect was named the 2019 Growth Stage Company of the Year by LifeSciences BC. Not new to the award spectacle, the company was also the recipient of the ‘Most Promising Startup’ Award at the BC Tech Association’s 2016 Technology Impact Awards.
Aspect is building an interdisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, and business professionals from all over the world, to advance tissue programs both internally and through its commercial partners. Through innovation and talent, Aspect is bringing to market revolutionary technologies for strategic applications in the life sciences.
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