From Heart Patches to Scaffolds: Prof. Alice White’s Impact on Bioprinting at Boston University

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Imagine having the power to create incredibly detailed, tiny structures that could one day save lives. This is the world of Professor Alice White, a leading figure in the realm of 3D printing and biomedical engineering. With a career that spans decades and a passion for innovation, White has been making waves at Boston University (BU) for over a decade, leveraging her extensive experience to drive progress in medical technology and inspire the next generation of engineers.

3DPrint.com interviewed Professor White to delve into her groundbreaking work and vision for the future.

Alice White at Bell Labs. Image courtesy of Nokia Bell Labs.

White’s journey began at the iconic Bell Labs, a research powerhouse known for groundbreaking inventions like the transistor and information theory. Over her 30-year tenure, she climbed the ranks to become Chief Scientist, working on revolutionary projects in photonics and nanotechnology. Bell Labs has been a beacon of innovation since 1925, shaping the future of telecommunications and beyond.

Despite the prestige and opportunities at Bell Labs, White sought more. She wanted to integrate her expertise with a broader mission: to serve as a role model and advocate for women in fields where they were underrepresented. This desire for greater impact led her to academia, where she believed she could leverage her industrial experience to encourage more women to pursue careers in engineering and physics.

From Industry to Academia

In 2013, White transitioned to academia, joining the College of Engineering at BU. Here, she faced the challenge of starting from scratch—no lab, no equipment, and no established network. But her determination and vision quickly transformed this blank slate into a thriving research hub. She founded the Multiscale Laser Lithography Lab in 2014, equipping it with a Nanoscribe 3D printer to develop complex structures for biomedical applications.

One pivotal moment in her academic career was working with Professor Chris Chen, Founding Director of BU’s Biological Design Center and co-lead of the Wyss Institute’s 3D Organ Engineering Initiative. His work on the mechanical properties of stem cells sparked an idea: what if she could use her expertise in fabrication to create 3D environments that mimic the body’s conditions? This led her to collaborate with Chen, using the Nanoscribe to print tiny, intricate scaffolds for tissue engineering. She contributed to developing cell scaffolds using two-photon polymerization via direct laser writing, which allows for the precise creation of 3D structures that can influence cell behavior and tissue formation.

Professor Alice White talks with Postdoc Matthias Imboden. Image courtesy of Cydney Scott for Boston University.

Tech Power

White’s work with the Nanoscribe 3D printer has been nothing short of transformative. This tool allows her to create structures at a scale smaller than a human cell with incredible precision. For instance, her team developed an “auxetic” scaffold that shrinks laterally when compressed vertically in multiple directions—something unusual with traditional materials. This innovation is crucial for applications like mini pumps—or miniPUMP—in medical devices, where the mechanical properties of the structure are vital for functionality.

Nanoscribe’s versatility extends beyond just printing scaffolds. White’s lab has used it to create sensitive flow valves, nanoclips for stimulating peripheral nerves, and even custom tweezers for manipulating tiny magnets.

The Nanoscribe Photonic Professional GT nanoprinter

The Nanoscribe Photonic Professional GT nanoprinter. Image courtesy of Nanoscribe.

White’s research has also explored integrating 3D printing with micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS). She has demonstrated how coupling 3D microprinting with MEMS actuators can produce dynamic, deformable microstructures crucial for medical imaging and tissue engineering applications. This innovative approach allows creating customizable, functional microcomponents that can be directly integrated into existing systems, enhancing their performance and capabilities.

“Thanks to the design and engineering of the Nanoscribe tool, we could push the edges of what could be done, making extremely flexible joints and other intricate components. It’s a fantastic tool for both research and practical applications,” White noted. “One of the most exciting aspects of our work is the potential to create biodegradable scaffolds for medical implants. These materials can dissolve in the body over time, which is crucial for developing safe and effective implants.”

Graduate student uses Nanoscribe at Alice White’s Lab. Image courtesy of Boston University.

Leading the Charge

At CELL-MET (the NSF Engineering Research Center for Cellular Metamaterials), a collaborative research effort between BU, the University of Michigan, Harvard Medical School, and other institutions, White’s research is crucial in advancing biomedical engineering. As a co-principal investigator, she focuses on creating functional heart tissues to tackle heart disease—the leading cause of death globally. The primary goal is to develop cardiac patches from a patient’s own stem cells capable of repairing damaged heart tissue without the danger of rejection. White’s projects at CELL-MET are jointly carried out between her lab and Chen’s tissue engineering lab at BU.

At CELL-MET (from left), Christopher Chen, Christos Michas, and Alice White. Image courtesy of Jackie Ricciardi for Boston University.

Her work is the perfect convergence of engineering and biology, a field often called “Eng-Bio Convergence.” By combining mechanical engineering with biomedical insights, White and her colleagues are pioneering new ways to address complex health issues. The flexibility of 3D printing allows them to experiment with different designs and materials, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in tissue engineering.

“Our aim is to create functional patches that can replace or repair damaged heart tissue. It’s a challenging task, but the potential impact is enormous. These patches could potentially restore heart function and improve the quality of life for countless individuals.”

In 2022, White, Chen, and a multidisciplinary team at CELL-MET used 3D printing to engineer a tiny living heart chamber replica that more accurately mimics the real organ and provides a sandbox for testing new heart disease treatments. The BU team’s gadget—nicknamed miniPUMP—could pave the way for building lab-based versions of other organs, from lungs to kidneys.

A large-scale replica of the scaffold that supports the heart tissue. Image courtesy of Christos Michas for Boston University.

Mentoring

Beyond her groundbreaking work, White is deeply committed to encouraging a diverse and inclusive environment in engineering. She was the first female chair of mechanical engineering at BU and has strongly advocated for more women to enter STEM fields. Her experience in both industry and academia makes her an ideal mentor to prepare students for careers in engineering.

“The students have been the best part of these ten years at BU,” White said. “Nurturing their careers and seeing them succeed in industry is incredibly rewarding. I’ve been able to offer career development advice and help them network.”

The Future of 3D Printing in Medicine

Looking ahead, White sees immense potential for 3D printing in biomedical applications. For instance, the development of biodegradable resins could lead to implants that safely dissolve in the body over time. This would be a game-changer for medical devices, making them safer and more versatile. Her lab continues to explore new materials and designs, always aiming to improve the speed and precision of 3D printing. The goal is to shorten the time between research and clinical applications.

“The ability to scale up our research from small tissues to larger, functional tissue structures is a major focus,” White stated. “We’re exploring ways to replicate our findings on a larger scale, which is vital for practical medical applications. This involves overcoming challenges in ensuring the structural integrity and functionality of the tissues as they increase in size. Ultimately, the goal is to create viable, implantable tissues that can integrate seamlessly with the body’s existing systems, offering new hope for patients with severe tissue damage. Additionally, we are developing methods to ensure these larger tissue structures can be produced consistently and efficiently, which is vital for their eventual clinical use.”

Professor Alice White. Image courtesy of Cydney Scott for Boston University.

From White’s work at Bell Labs to her pioneering research at BU, she has consistently pushed the boundaries of what’s possible in engineering and medicine. Her dedication to mentoring the next generation and fostering diversity in STEM ensures that her legacy will continue to inspire and transform the field for years. As she aptly puts it, “You can do anything with the right tools and a relentless drive to innovate.”

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