Harvard Bioprinting Tech Licensed to Ex-Organovo Execs for Bioprinted Kidneys


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San Diego-based Trestle Biotherapeutics has initiated an agreement with Harvard University to license the school’s stem cell and bioprinting technology. The goal is to 3D print kidney tissue for regenerative medicine applications.

The California startup is aiming to 3D print kidney tissue that can aid or replace lost renal function in kidney failure patients. To do so, Trestle is combining stem cell biology with bioprinting to quickly produce vascularized kidney tissue at a scale necessary for regenerative medicine, as well as potentially enabling stem cell-derived organoids necessary as a stepping stone for fully-fledged bioprinted organs.

In Jennifer Lewis's research from 2016, Fugitive ink is used to create bioprinted nephron tubules. [Image: Lewis Lab/Wyss Institute at Harvard University]

In Jennifer Lewis’s research from 2016, fugitive ink was used to create bioprinted nephron tubules. (Image: Lewis Lab/Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

The technology was developed at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. You may recognize the Wyss Institute from the name Jennifer Lewis, the founder of startup Voxel8 and one of the developers of the bioprinting process being licensed by Trestle. Lewis, along with Dr. Ryuji Morizane, who is an Affiliated Faculty member at Harvard Stem Cell Institute, will be joining Trestle’s scientific advisory board.

“Trestle was founded with the belief that recreating patterns and processes found in nature is key to building functional tissues. The next era of cell therapies and regenerative medicine, particularly for addressing diseases arising from complex organs such as the kidney, will rely on the integration of multiple advancing disciplines. Developmental biology, stem cell biology, and 3D biofabrication are core components of this approach. We look forward to integrating the innovative work from Drs. Lewis and Morizane into the platform we are building,” said Alice Chen, Ph.D., Co-Founder and CSO Trestle.

Trestle noted that, as of 2021, there were over 100,000 people awaiting kidney transplant and more than 550,000 relying on dialysis. While dialysis can be tolerated for decades, as was the case for my own godmother, these massive machines are poor substitutes for the body’s own filtration system. And even when transplants become available, there’s no guarantee that they will work as intended, as was also the case for my godmother. By fabricating tissues using a patient’s own stem cells, it’s possible not only to quickly shorten this massive waiting list but to do so in a way that could potentially guarantee success.

In Lewis’s 2016 research, the scientists have been able to 3D print functional renal architectures. (Image: Lewis Lab/Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

“Patients living with kidney failure have had the same two standard-of-care treatment options for more than 60 years. We are really excited to embark on the ambitious mission of changing that and building upon the work of the Lewis and Morizane labs towards making this a reality for those patients,” said Ben Shepherd, Ph.D., Co-Founder and CEO of Trestle.

Though this is an exciting announcement, we have heard similar promises by companies over the years. Most notably, Organovo seemed to be on the cusp of commercializing tissue patches for treatment of liver disease. That company, however, is struggling to survive. In fact, the Trestle executives quoted above both previously worked at Organovo. Shepherd served as vice president of Research & Preclinical Development at Organovo, while Chen was Director of Research & Preclinical Development.

This time around, things may be different. Now, we’re not limited to startups attempting to drive the development of 3D printable tissues, but somewhat larger corporations engaged in what seem like true solutions, including 3D Systems and BICO. Partnered with 3D Systems to 3D print lung tissue, for instance, is United Therapeutics, a roughly $1.4-billion pharmaceutical business with many established medications on the market.

We can hope that Chen and Shepherd are taking with them valuable experience and know-how that will be more fruitfully applied at their new startup. Because the technology is being licensed from Harvard, we may have further assurance that Trestle will achieve its goals. If so, we may truly be witnessing the birth of a real bioprinting industry, which in turn could herald completely new era of medical treatment for patients suffering from organ failure.

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