The severe shortage of human organs for transplantation has inspired scientists worldwide to step up the research for alternatives to donation. Breakthroughs in disruptive technologies like 3D bioprinting offer a promising solution that can revolutionize the healthcare field and ultimately offer personalized organs grown from patient’s cells. Dozens of established bioprinting companies worldwide have created solutions to advance the field, but the landscape in Latin America has been slow-paced, with only six startups working to develop new technology, among them Tissue Labs.
As of 2019, the Brazilian startup has been tackling the problem through the development of a new platform to create organs and tissues in the lab. Born out of the IPEN-Cietec Incubator at the University of São Paulo, the new company has already raised a $1.6 million seed round to build and market patented a 3D bioprinter and bioinks.
Tissue Labs’ founder Gabriel Liguori, a 30-year-old physician and tissue engineering researcher, expects his company to follow the worldwide trend toward creating technology able to 3D print a functional bioartificial heart by the end of the decade. But, for now, he is focused on offering local scientists greater flexibility to their research through biomaterials, a newly released bioprinter, and a new 3D printed platform which he is giving away for free to aid experts studying the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
Developed to offer tissue-specific microenvironments for 3D cell culture, the company’s MatriXpec hydrogels allow researchers to run experiments in representative substrates that mimic the biological clues of the native extracellular matrix (ECM). Tissue Labs created its award-winning bioinks for up to 16 different tissues: adipose, bone, brain, cartilage, colon, intestine, kidney, liver, lung, muscle, myocardium, pancreas, skin, spleen, stomach, and vascular. In addition to influencing the proliferation and differentiation of stem cells, Liguori told 3DPrint.com that the gel also enables the formation of microvascular networks, which are the small vessels that exist in all organs and through which blood passes to reach the tissues.
An extensive microvascular network will be required for any organ to be manufactured in the lab in the future. One of the main challenges for the progress of tissue-engineered vascular grafts is the development of adequate biomaterials, that is, hydrogels capable of guiding stem cell behavior, supporting cell growth and differentiation. Recently, Liguori and his team proposed the use of vascular decellularized extracellular matrix (dECM)- based hydrogels as a biomaterial for 3D printing the thickest layer of small-caliber blood vessels (SCBV). In one of their studies, they used MatriXpec Vascular, an aorta ECM-derived hydrogel, to successfully construct a compact, highly populated tissue, with a demonstrated cell viability of more than 21 days, proving that the biomaterial was promising for 3D bioprinting vascular grafts. This is just one of the many studies underway at Tissue Labs headquarters, where bioengineers are working with stem cells to understand native tissues.
“Originally, we were focused solely on our MatriXpec hydrogels used for 3D bioprinting. However, many of our clients could only use them with conventional 3D cell culture techniques because they didn’t have access to a 3D bioprinter. In Latin American countries, like Brazil, even a $10,000 3D bioprinter can be expensive for labs that are frequently poorly funded. So, we decided to create a 3D bioprinter that had the essential features for researchers that are just entering the field,” explained Liguori to 3DPrint.com. “We recently released TissueStart, a low-cost 3D bioprinter with two extrusion heads, UV-crosslinking, and a premium plexiglass frame. It is the most compact and lightest 3D bioprinter in the market, weighing just over three kilos, so it’s easy to use and move. At $5,000, it is priced at half the cost of the previous cheapest alternative. We believe TissueStart will allow hundreds of scientists in developing countries to gain access to 3D bioprinting technology, fostering the scientific development in these regions.”
Driven by a purpose bigger than profit, Liguori has a unique perspective on patients’ needs. When he was an infant, he was diagnosed with pulmonary atresia, a congenital heart disease in which the pulmonary valve does not form properly. At two years old, his life was saved after undergoing surgery, which was followed by years of check-ups at the University of São Paulo’s Heart Institute, an experience that he claims propelled him to study medicine to help other children just like him. After more than a decade engaged in cardiovascular tissue engineering in his home country and the Netherlands, Liguori became determined to create an artificial heart that could be functional for transplantation.
“This is a life project for me. I understand what it’s like to be a patient, to desperately want a solution that can ease the pain and suffering that comes with waiting for an organ transplant. This is why I created Tissue Labs, to advance tissue engineering and eventually create a beating heart,” he went on. “Bioprinting disrupts the field of tissue engineering by opening the possibility to create complex 3D multicellular constructs like it was never possible before. It exceeds the long-term dream to construct artificial organs in the lab and helps us understand the mechanisms behind the biology that makes our bodies behave the way they do.”
Empowering scientists to engage in innovative research is what Tissue Labs hopes to offer. Unfortunately, Liguori recalls the waiting process that he had to endure in Brazil to patent or bring a product to market. The barriers to importing materials and red-tape to commercialize technology are among some of the overbearing ordeals that entrepreneurs have to endure for their startups to survive. Like in most Latin American countries, offering innovative know-how and solutions that move forth the fields of science and technology is not enough. Creative minds find hurdles beyond their expectations, with bureaucratic processes that can take months or even years. Luckily, local pioneers like Liguori still find a way to change how things stand, by being relentless, persevering, and patient, imagining what the future would look like if bioprinting technology helped local scientists advance their research.
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