Interview with Gavin Jeffries from Fluicell: “Cell Biology is at the Core of our Work”

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Getting to know cells well helps understand how organisms function. This is one of the aspects that drive scientists, researchers, and physicians to create bioprinting technology to generate living structures that can mimic the actual environment of human tissues. Bioprinters today usually involve a syringe-like mechanism to deposit cell material within a gel or scaffold structure, which helps keep the desired 3D shape while printing and is then washed away or dissolved. A Swedish company called Fluicell is out to change the reigning trend and has just released a new system for cell 3D printing. Based on innovative open-volume microfluidics technology, their brand new bioprinting system, Biopixlar, is capable of generating detailed, multi-cellular biological tissues without the need for a gel matrix.

The Biopixlar bioprinter

Biopixlar is designed for handling scarce and valuable cell sources such as stem cells, primary cells, and patient biopsies. The company has actually begun working at their own labs building full tissue and cancer models, which usually takes them just 24 hours to print thanks to their technology. The system is an all-in-one discovery platform that allows the printing of multiple types of different cells at once with high precision and resolution. One of the fun features is the gamepad interface, used to manually control the position of the print head and deposit the cells. Also, an integrated multi-color fluorescence imaging configuration enables real-time monitoring of the printing process and post-print analysis.

Gavin Jeffries

Fluicell, a spin-off company out of Chalmers University of Technology, in Sweden, has been around since 2012, developing biotech hardware devices–including the BioPen and Dynaflow Resolve systems–but their research has taken them to explore changes in the bioprinting market, namely producing human-like tissue replicas. 3DPrint.com spoke to Gavin Jeffries, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at Fluicell, to understand the process behind Biopixlar.

How did Fluicell become a pioneer in open-volume microfluidics?

Microfluidics is essentially the control of liquids on a smaller scale and is very useful when scientists need to handle the smallest amounts of liquid or have very rare samples and need fast responses. Over the last 20 years, microfluidics has been advancing quite a lot but has largely focused on chip-based devices, which means the whole field is centered around putting cells or liquids inside another device. When we first started the company we noticed that having something inside a device was restrictive, because within biology you normally want to have your cells in a petri dish or on your microscope, not inside a chip. But at the same time, we wanted to harness the power of microfluidics to use small sample amounts and have those very fast response times, so essentially we came up with a way of very precisely controlling both positive and negative pressures to allow control of liquids outside of our microfluidic chip. Meaning we can still have the function of microfluidics but in an open volume (basically in any kind of biological platform.) Since 2011, this technology has been picked up by different fields for research.

How will the gamepad simplify the user experience?

Biopixlar is a complete discovery platform, with everything embedded in it. Actually, just like a game system, the gamepad interface provides user control over the responsivity of the machine. This control format is ideal for people who are coming into the workforce and who have grown up with advanced interfaces, without the need to use a mouse or a keyboard. We also hoped to focus on the comfort of working with the device, for example, researchers will be able to get a direct response in real-time because it is fully embedded with microscopy, so they will see everything they are doing, every cell they put in, just everything.

Biopixlar is designed to be a complete platform where discovery science is its home and marketplace. Research and development, whether it is looking at disease models or interrogating biological systems, the user has control over building these early-stage models as accurately as possible. These can be found in academia and the pharma industry, so it will be our first bridge between the two market segments.

Closeup of the Biopixlar printhead

What makes Biopixlar so unique?

After one layer of cells is put down, Biopixlar allows them to grow and then pattern them using a molecular cell binder to put the next level of cells, and so on, building up layer by layer and using the extracellular matrix binding agent in between, which would naturally be reproduced by the cells. We chose to use components of the extracellular matrix that are naturally formed with the cells so that the device can pattern them on top of the cells which are printed, allowing for more cells to attach. In this way, researchers will not need to house the cells in any binder to build in three dimensions. 

Why is cell viability really high with the Biopixlar system?

That is largely because of the microfluidics within the device. We use a consumable cartridge to load the cells, but inside there is a series of complex circuitry that allows the handling of liquids in a no-sharing regime so the fluids don’t rub against each other and the cells are much happier being in this kind of no shared environment. When we patterned the cells at the lab, we noticed that there is no negative impact of printed cells versus putting them in a dish. Moreover, we feel comfortable and very happy that we minimally interfere with the cells when we build them into the structure that we want to create. 

Printed skin cancer model

Do you consider Biopixlar will be successful among researchers?

We stand alone within the market of bioprinting because we do not need to use any binding matrix, our goal is to put cells as close as possible to each other so that they begin communicating straight away. Most of the full tissue and cancer models we built at the lab were done within 24 hours, and this is largely due to the fact that we don’t have anything in the way of the cells communicating with each other. Additionally, thanks to the gamepad, we can see exactly what we are doing in real-time. The technology sparks interest in the field because people can actually see the bridge between advanced technology and biology and we are now starting to get to a point where we can show results and people are starting to get excited about them. 

Is understanding cell behavior at the core of what you do?

The only thing which we are really focusing on is the cells. With Biopixlar, scientists don’t have to pattern ink or deposition areas, they will not have to deal with that and instead, focus on the cells. Biopixlar has a unique advantage to see if anything is going wrong because if something were to happen to the cells or the biology during the process, it will be seen directly. Thanks to the high-resolution microscopy, we can interrogate the cells as they are printed or while they are growing. This all-in-one discovery platform approach is necessary to carry out bioprinting while providing advantages over how the biological tissues are actually built. 

Printed liver cancer model

How would you describe Biopixlar to a potential buyer?

It is a high-resolution machine that fits in a comfortable lab setting with an easy-to-use experience, built with microscopy for looking at individual cells. Researchers need an accurate micro position to move around all the microcomponents while having a very stable infrastructure because it is moving on the micron size scale, instead of the millimeter size, we wouldn’t want it to vibrate and lose calibration in the middle of a print. Overall, it is an accessible, original and optimal resolution device for lab spaces. 

[Image credit: Fluicell]

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