Vancouver startup promises to print organs

Co-founder Tamer Mohamed examines a specimen produced by the machine.

A 3D cell printer in action.

CEO Konrad Walus and co-founder Tamer Mohamed next to one of their printers.

Aspect Biosystems has found a unique use of 3D printers: human cells

When a heart transplant is your only chance for survival, much is left up to fate. But imagine hearts could be made, not simply moved between bodies, with a 3D printer.

That’s the “moon shot” aim of Aspect Biosystems, a UBC-based biotechnology company. “It’s not science fiction,” says CEO Konrad Walus, an engineer by training. “People have done this. They’ve taken all of the cells off of the mechanical part of a heart, and then reseeded new heart cells on there—and it beats.”

Aspect is a top-10 finalist in the BCIC New Ventures competition, a multi-month contest for early-stage technology companies that will give out $300,000 in prizes at a reception on Monday.

And while printed hearts are still 10 to 15 years away, by Walus’s estimation, there will be many applications for Aspect’s machines along the way. Currently, the main focus is on the discovery and testing of new drugs. By creating functional models of specific cellular structures like airways, livers or even tumours, Aspect hopes to fast track the often-expensive process of clinical and preclinical drug trials. They’ve already secured a partnership with a top-10 pharmaceutical company, and are in talks with others.

“Because we can make [specific structures] very repeatedly, you can have thousands of these models that are basically the same,” Walus explains. He says this would limit the amount of animal testing drug companies require, and reduce the risk of taking a potentially ineffective or dangerous drug all the way to clinical trial—and save drug companies a lot of money.

Aspect’s custom-built machines look like conventional commercial 3D printers, but that’s where the similarities end. Instead of melting a material like plastic or metal and layering it to create structures, the printer head uses a series of tiny tubes and valves to layer the cells it’s printing, suspended in a “hydrogel” that gives them the approximate rigidity of actual living tissue. And unlike a conventional 3D printer, it’s able to print multiple materials from the same head.

UBC is a big part of Aspect Biosystems. The company’s labs are located at the university, where Walus also teaches engineering. Two of Aspect’s co-founders, Simon Beyer and Tamer Mohamed, are former students of Walus’s. In addition to its private investment and government grants, Aspect also receives funding from the university’s seed fund. Of course, UBC stands to gain from any success Aspect achieves—the university can tout it as an example of the groundbreaking research conducted there.

And Aspect’s work certainly is groundbreaking—even scary, to some. But not to Walus.

“If you need a new organ [today], what happens?” he says. “You get an organ from someone else. You’re literally taking somebody else’s body and integrating it with your own. That seems to me like a lot more of a freakish thing than using your own cells to manufacture a replacement part for yourself.”

There are even more applications for the technology beyond drug testing and replacement organs. It could also be used, Walus says, for personalized medicine—that is, testing which of a suite of potential drugs would be most effective for you personally, since not everyone reacts to all drugs the same way. Even further down the road, the technology could be integrated with conventional 3D-printing technology to create devices and structures with both organic and inorganic components.

“I think 3D printing in general is going to change a lot of the way we manufacture things,” says Simon Beyer, who focuses mainly on creating Aspect’s custom printing hardware. “There are a lot of interesting things about to come.”