Lab-on-a-printer brings 3D printed structures to life

The humble ink jet printer is the workhorse equivalent of the ballpoint pen or stapler, meeting the everyday needs of homes and offices around the world.

However, this commonplace piece of hardware may soon serve a loftier purpose, as a game-changing drug discovery tool. That is the vision of Dr. Konrad Walus at University of British Columbia, who has spent much of his life contemplating the potential of printers.

Since 2006 the associate professor of electrical engineering has actively explored applications enabling this technology to work with living, organic materials, starting with ink jet printing and moving on to more sophisticated technologies, such as fused fibre fabrication. Last year, Walus and an interdisciplinary team of biologists and engineers founded Aspect Biosystems, a UBC spinoff company, to turn their idea into a commercial product. Their results have already captured the attention of observers in the pharmaceutical industry, and the company has recently received federal government support for validation of Aspect’s first 3D printed tissue product.

The formal name for this field of research is bioprinting, which conjures up images of printers laying down patterns of biological material instead of ink. For Walus, the reality is all that and more. “It’s pretty powerful,” he says. “The technology is capable of printing with multiple materials and complex 3D geometry. It could consist of layers of cells, different cells, and we can incorporate growth factors on the fly.”

In principle, this printing process could be sophisticated enough to produce anatomically accurate copies of complex tissue, and even whole organs suitable for transplantation. In order to reach this lofty goal, however, Walus initially wants to solve a more fundamental problem facing pharmaceutical firms: the inadequacy of two-dimension cell cultures as a model for testing drug candidate compounds. He points to studies that confirm three-dimension arrangements more closely mimic conditions in the human body while avoiding the many complications—and high cost—of using animals for testing.

“We aim to improve the predictive accuracy of the front-end drug discovery process by providing pharmaceutical companies with highly predictive printed tissues that better mimic in vivo conditions,” he explains.

He adds that it should be possible to design these models with enough sophistication to test the behaviour of drug candidate compounds. “Our print-head is capable of programmatically defining the structure,” he says, noting that it should be possible to align 24 or 48 wells, each containing different organic constituents, all operating in parallel.

Such elaborate programming called for innovative electronic control systems, which is why Walus turned to CMC Microsystems for help. As a member of Canada’s National Design Network since his undergraduate days, he is well acquainted with CMC, and he knew they would be able to offer the necessary support to transform an ink jet printer into an elaborate tissue manufacturing station.

“Their impact in Canada on the microelectronics and engineering communities has been enormous over the years,” he says. “They’ve had a substantial positive impact on our research and commercialization achievements.”

Walus points to key pieces of equipment that CMC loaned him, such as pressure sources and microscopes, as well as 3D design tools such as SolidWorks, and support to fabricate chips used in the printer. This assistance has been invaluable in getting Aspect Biosystems off the ground, he says.

CMC provided validation as well, presenting Tamer Mohamed and Simon Beyer, Dr. Walus’s graduate student co-founders, with the CMC MEMSCAP Microsystems Design Award for their demonstration of novel bioprinting technology. The award recognizes strong demonstration of an integrated microsystems technology with high commercial potential.

Although the ultimate potential of the technology is impressive, it calls for a considerable initial investment. “This business could not be started in somebody’s garage,” he says. “It’s a tough business to build from zero. Rather than trying to print organs right now, what we’d rather do is develop less complex tissues where our technology could have an impact right now and build the business around that. Still, it’s good to know that the technology has many more avenues to explore.”