"If someone asked the question in 1960, 'How long would it take to put a man on the moon,' they would have one answer. And if someone asked the question in 1964 they would have a very different answer," says Keith Murphy, CEO and cofounder of the biotechnology startup, Organovo.
Sometimes groundbreaking scientific advances never thought possible are actually just around the corner. And the breakthrough Murphy’s referring to here is one that his company's been working toward since 2008: the creation of a functioning human organ in a lab with the help of 3-D bioprinting technology.
Here’s how it works: First, Organovo creates a "bio-ink" out of human cells, collected from biopsies or stem cell sources. Researchers then feed those "cell droplets" into a 3-D printer and program the arrangement of the droplets using custom-built software. "At that point, it’s kind of like working with Legos," Murphy says. Currently, Organovo can build blood vessels along with various types of connective tissue, or fibrosis.
While Organovo's not alone in using 3-D printer technology to create biological material, other companies’ creations generally require the use of a synthetic polymer scaffolding to keep the cell structures from falling apart. But Organovo has found a way to keep the cells together without introducing any foreign substances, making it as close to the real thing as possible.
"Our system can get you to a fully cellular structure which is important if you’re trying to study the behavior of cells in their natural environment," says Murphy.
For Murphy, the story of Organovo started five years ago when the chemical engineer decided he wanted to start his own business, but was still searching for a killer product. For 17 years, he had worked on the corporate side of the biotech industry at places like Alkermes and Amgen, but by 2008, Murphy was in need of a change. That’s when the startup world came calling. "I needed something that was more fast-paced and that really involved innovation, thinking on your feet, and being dynamic everyday," Murphy says. He finally found the big idea he was looking for when he met Dr. Gabor Forgacs, a biophysicist from the University of Missouri who had developed a powerful 3-D bioprinting technique, but didn't know how to commercialize it. While the potential for making entire organs is undeniably enticing, the mere promise of that breakthrough isn’t enough to sustain a company, so Forgacs needed to figure out a way to monetize his printer in the short-term. That’s where Murphy’s years of business savvy came in.
"We launched the company really looking for financing in the third quarter of 2008," says Murphy. "If you remember what happened around September, October of 2008, you know that’s a challenging environment to be raising money in. We had to find a real business solution—an unmet commercial need for the technology."
So Organovo began supplying its tissue to pharmaceutical companies to use as test platforms for experimental drugs. Unlike raw cellular material or structures that use synthetic scaffolding, Organovo’s samples are whole biological entities, so they’re ideal for finding out how a compound will react in the human body. "In certain disease areas, taking cells and putting them in a petri dish isn’t sufficient because those cells aren’t behaving like they do in the body," says Murphy. "A lot of times (drug companies) make a wrong conclusion and find out 800 million dollars later."
Along with its pharmaceutical partners, Organovo licenses its hardware and software to academic institutions like Harvard Medical School and the Sanford Constortium for Regenerative Medicine, where researchers are working toward even more applications of the technology, including the elusive construction of full organs. But Murphy says they can’t do it alone.
"Specifically it’s going to take federal research funding. That’s the biggest thing that’s going to drive this area forward. If it suddenly became a federal priority and there was a lot of research funding going in this direction then you could have (organ-printing) in a small number of decades."
Then again, if we’ve learned anything from Murphy's moon landing example, it could happen much sooner than we think.