Biotech startup aims to use bioink in 3D printer to grow human tissue and someday, organs

Three-dimensional printing marks an exciting frontier in healthcare in which companies can use advanced 3D printers to make everything from human ear and foot models for research to  prosthetics that can transform a toddler’s life.

But 3D bio-printing — producing human tissue and ultimately human organs using inks composed of different human cells — is almost an incomprehensible level of wow.

Most of this effort is being undertaken where you would expect – in advanced academic research labs. However, one company that has embarked on that journey commercially is San Diego-based Organovo, founded in 2007.

“What we know from cell biology is that if you take the right cells and create these architectures of various cells and tissue types, you can precipitate or catalyze or induce if you will the formation of a tissue,” said Michael Renard, Executive Vice President of Commercial Operations at Organovo, in a recent interview. “The uniqueness of what we do is not just the cells and managing cells and growing the cells – that’s done pretty commonly. It’s using the bioprinting to create a defined architecture that in turn creates a tissue.”


While the company’s expertise is in choosing the right kind of cells and using the bioprinters to give these cells a pre-defined structure, Renard candidly admits that it also does depend on the unexplained miracle that is life.

“What we can do with our printing technology is to bring [different] cell types together architecturally to create a tissue. Now, to be fair and clear, when you put different cell types in a micro environment in the right way, you can rely on the native biology of these cells to signal each and they begin this magnificent and fascinating process of organizing themselves.”

But Renard assures that this is a process that can be repeated, provided, of course, the right elements are in place.

Drug companies are fascinated by the progress the company has made with its NovoGen bioprinters. What attracts them is the ability to test their drug candidates on functional human tissue, unlike the 2D cell cultures currently available to them, Renard said.

“What doesn’t exist today is a three dimensional piece of living human human tissue that has the right cell types so that you can gauge it in some sort of testing or study,” he said. “You get a in-vivo like response that you can rely on, and trust and it’s predictable of what would happen in the body.”

So far, Organovo has signed partnerships with Pfizer and United Therapeutics. Renard declined to disclose the terms of the partnership or even the medical areas the companies are focusing on. But Organovo is basically creating disease models on which drugs can be tested.

But future revenue is not solely through cementing such partnerships and doing contract research with them. Renard says Organovo envisions creating a line of functional tissue and selling them.

“I can tell you that we are progressing active research in the areas of liver, blood vessel, bone and cartilage, cardiac and kidney,” he said. “We are determining which ones to bring to market and in what order.”

Future revenue could also come from medical device makers and not just pharma partners. Device makers may want to be involved with the most “contemporary and cutting edge technology” by supplementing their mechanical implantable products with biological implantables, Renard suggested.

For now, however, a real source of revenue is through grants. The National Institutes of Health has provided a $290,053 grant to produce 3D, bioprinted, functional, human liver tissue in the third quarter. In that same quarter ended Sept.30, Organovo had revenue of $469,238, up from $231,974, in the same quarter of 2011. The company had a net loss of $38.5 million or 69 cents per diluted share, up from a loss of $805,242 or 7 cents per share. The company went public in February and trades over the counter OTCQV under the ticker ONVO.

While growing full organs is years away – you have to overcome the vast challenge of knowing how to feed the tissue that you are growing, which means supplying nutrients like oxygen and taking away CO2 and other waste material – developing tissue not just for drug discovery but for therapies is not too far fetched.

“When you think of growing tissues for therapies, you can think of some simple therapies such as cardiac muscle that can be used in a damaged heart to repair itself,” he said. “I encourage you not to think of building a kidney that anatomically looks like the human kidney as what’s in our future. What I would encourage everyone to think is what’s the functional piece of tissue would return function to that patient.”

 [Photo Credit: Freedigitalphotos user Jscreationzs]

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