A biomedical startup in San Diego is giving new form to tissue engineering, with the help of proprietary technology licensed from the University of Missouri and a 3-D “bio-printer” capable of building human blood vessels and organs.
Organovo CEO Keith Murphy demonstrated the bio-printer for me several weeks ago, explaining that the technology was developed by Gabor Forgacs, a professor of biological physics at the University of Missouri. “The technology really sparked the germ of the company,” says Murphy, who previously spent 10 years at Thousand Oaks, CA-based Amgen.
Forgacs, a Hungarian who moved to the United States in the 1980s, founded Organovo in 2007 with more than $1 million in funding raised from angel investors in San Diego and elsewhere around the world, according to Murphy. The CEO says Forgacs gained a fundamental understanding of what it takes to artificially create human organs through painstaking studies of developing chicken embryos. As Murphy puts it, Forgacs literally wrote (or co-authored) the textbook, which is called “Biological Physics of the Developing Embryo.”
The field of tissue engineering has come a long way since the 1980s, when MIT’s Robert Langer developed methods of encouraging certain types of organ cells to grow on polymer scaffolding. In recent years, a number of researchers have begun experimenting with technology that uses modified inkjet printers to lay down precise patterns of cells that grow together to form tissue. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, demonstrated how researchers at Wake Forest use similar technology to grow a human ear, bladder, and heart muscle during a Ted Med presentation in San Diego three months ago.
Forgacs showed in 2005 that it was possible to “print” a tube of living tissue, using droplets—or spheres—of viscous biological material from hamster ovary cells. When the cell spheres were printed in a ring and stacked on top of one another with the help of a supportive hydrogel, they fused together within 24 hours to form a tubular structure. Forgacs refined the technology under a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation that includes regenerative medicine scientists from Medical University of South Carolina, the New York Medical College, University of Utah, and other institutions. As Organovo’s Murphy puts it, the technology “really is about seeing this cellular self-assembly that occurs when these cells are put together. They already know how to behave and they just fuse together.”
Murphy says the startup moved to San Diego in late 2008 with a long-term goal of using the technology to create livers, kidneys, and other vital organs that are usually in short supply for patients in need of organ transplants. In the meantime, Organovo is expected to raise Series A venture funding sometime this summer. Murphy also says, “We’ve got to take the first steps to have commercially viable products in the short term.”
For the immediate future, Murphy says Organovo’s primary focus is engineering blood vessel grafts that can be used for arterial bypass procedures in patients with peripheral artery disease. One advantage of the technology is that it avoids host rejection complications by using the patient’s own blood cells to create new blood vessels. But the work still remains at an early stage, and it will take Organovo years to gain the necessary regulatory approval. “Basically, we have to complete the pre-clinical studies before we can move onto clinical trials,” Murphy says.
As a result, Murphy says a more immediate prospect for a commercially viable product could be the bio-printer itself. Organovo developed the device through a partnership with Invetech, a Melbourne, Australia-based engineering design company that has extensive experience developing automated equipment for the biomedical, industrial, and consumer markets. Invetech, which also has an office in San Diego, delivered an early production model of the machine to Organovo a couple months ago. The bio-printer was designed to fit inside a standard biosafety cabinet for sterile use, and uses two print heads—one for precisely depositing human tissue cells, the other for depositing a jello-like hydrogel that provides both structural support and nutrients for the human tissue cells.
Organovo plans to sell the units, at an estimated price of $200,000 apiece, to research labs around the world that are investigating the use of bio-printers for human tissue repair and organ replacement. Although the machine operates much like an inkjet printer that uses tissue cells instead of ink, Murphy says it is conceptually more like a 3D rapid prototyping machine.
By using the 3D bio-printer, Murphy says scientists and engineers can place cells of almost any type into a desired pattern in three dimensions. Researchers can place liver cells on a preformed scaffold, support kidney cells with a co-printed scaffold, or form adjacent layers of epithelial and stromal soft tissue that grow into a mature tooth. To run it, an operator types instructions into a computerized controller, which guides the automated laser-calibrated print heads. Creating a 5-cm blood vessel (almost 2 inches long) takes about one hour, Murphy says.
“Our technology is open to any cell type,” Murphy says. “So if someone developed technology to use induced pluripotent stem cells to create organs, then we’ll be able to work with that. As advances are made in stem cell science, we can take advantage of them.”
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