Inside a lab that will open in a couple of months in Chicago, a biotech startup will soon begin perfecting the process of 3D-printing human hearts that could eventually be used in transplants.
“What this is set up to do is to make a patient-specific, fully functioning heart that’s viable for transplant, using the patient’s own cells,” says Steven Morris, founding partner and CEO of the startup, Biolife4D.
The process combines several steps that have been developed by various researchers in university labs. First, a patient’s heart will be scanned using an MRI machine to create a digital image of the heart’s shape and size. Next, doctors will take a blood sample. Using techniques that have been developed over the last decade, the blood cells will be converted into stem cells–and then converted a second time into heart cells. Those new heart cells will be combined with nutrients in a hydrogel to make a “bio-ink” that can be used in a specialized 3D printer.
Printing one layer at a time, with a biodegradable scaffolding to keep everything in place, the cells can be formed into the exact shape of the patient’s original heart. The new heart will be moved to a bioreactor to strengthen it. Amazingly, new heart cells outside a body will begin to self-assemble.
“When we’re done ‘bioprinting,’ we have something that looks like a heart, but it’s just individual cells in proper places,” says Morris. “Within a couple of days, the cells just know . . . ‘I’m a heart cell, you’re a heart cell, we’re supposed to join together and start beating.’ And they do that.”
When the heart is strong enough, technicians will raise the temperature to melt the scaffolding around the cells. The new heart can then be transplanted–and because it is the exact size of a patient’s original heart, and made from the patient’s own cells, it has a greater chance of success than a traditional transplant. In studies, other researchers have successfully transplanted stem cells in both humans and animals without the need for anti-rejection drugs.
Most people who receive heart transplants now don’t live more than a decade. Their body may reject the organ directly. The drugs they take to suppress their immune system–in an attempt to prevent the body from rejecting the foreign organ–may also make them unable to fight off another disease, such as cancer. The Biolife4D heart, in contrast, won’t require patients to take immunosuppressant drugs since it is an exact genetic match.
New bioprinted organs also solve a bigger problem: Few hearts are currently available for transplant, so the majority of people on waiting lists never have a chance for surgery at all. If hearts can be made from scratch, there will no longer be a lack of supply. “You’ve got this incredible need,” says Morris. Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, claiming one in three lives.
Morris, who previously ran a company that made medical devices, became interested in 3D printing first as a means to make prototypes of equipment. But as he researched the field, he realized that printing organs had become viable–and the researchers he met with, who each specialized in a particular step, weren’t yet trying to commercialize the process. In the new lab, the startup’s team will put the full process together, advised by the original researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, the Texas Heart Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and other institutions. The team at the new Chicago lab will also have access to lab space at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and other local labs.
The Biolife4D team will have to overcome hurdles, including how to successfully create tiny blood vessels in the new hearts. “That very fine network is still difficult to do,” Morris says. But they aim to make “mini hearts” within a year. Those mini hearts can be used by pharmaceutical companies to test new drugs; the current drug discovery process relies on animal testing, which is a poor proxy for how something will perform in humans. After making mini hearts, the team will create and test hearts in small animals, then larger animals, and eventually, humans.
The company isn’t the only startup in the space. A startup called Prellis Biologics, for example, has another printing process that is optimized for speed, and that includes blood vessels. A company called Organovo already makes 3D printed human tissue for drug discovery. But Biolife4D may be the only startup to use equity crowdfunding. The company has opened up investment to the public. “We wanted to make [the investment opportunity] available to everybody, not just wealthy people on Wall Street,” Morris says.