Interview: 3D printing promises transplantable hearts Special

Posted Mar 8, 2018 by Tim Sandle
The company BIOLIFE4D wants to create transplantable hearts based on patients’ own cells, eliminating organ rejection, through 3D bio-printing. The company's Steven Morris explains more.
Scientists have claimed that advanced tissue engineering techniques  such as freeze-drying heart val...
Scientists have claimed that advanced tissue engineering techniques, such as freeze-drying heart valves after cellular materials have been removed and storing the biological scaffolds for later transplanting, could revolutionize the field of reconstructive heart surgery.
Andy G/file
Heart disease is the world’s leading killer, claiming one in three lives. If a patient is among the 2 percent in the U.S. fortunate enough to receive a heart transplant, their post-transplant life expectancy is about 10 years. That is if their immune system doesn’t reject the new organ as foreign.
To help address the shortage of transplantable hearts and to avoid the organ rejection problem, the company BIOLIFE4D wants to create transplantable hearts based on patients’ own cells, which will eliminate organ rejection. BIOLIFE4D, a biotech pioneer leveraging advances in tissue engineering to 3D print human organs viable for transplant, has recently announced a Regulation A+ offering to raise $50 million to enable the 3D bioprinting of human hearts viable for transplant
In timing with American Heart Month, Digital Journal caught up with BIOLIFE4D's CEO, Steven Morris.
CEO  Steven Morris  of BIOLIFE4D.
CEO, Steven Morris, of BIOLIFE4D.
Digital Journal: How important is 3D printing becoming for medicine?
Steven Morris: 3D printing is becoming tremendously important to the medical field in many different ways. Custom patient-specific implants and instrumentation can transform patient care, 3D images obtained through MRI’s or CT scans can be used to make 3D printed models of internal body parts for surgeons to use to practice surgery before attempting surgery on the patient,3D printing can facilitate rapid prototyping used in development of new procedures to help get new advancements to the market sooner, and many other applications, including of course, the highly specialized type of 3D printing that we use which is 3D bioprinting. In our case, we use a 3D bioprinter to actually print an organ using a patient’s own cells as the ink. 3D printing has already had a huge impact on medicine and we think that impact will only continue to grow.
DJ: How has the hardware technology advanced in recent years?
Morris: Like most new technologies that are new, this technology has been and continues to be refined to be more efficient, accurate and capable. Advances in resolution, speed and accuracy continue to be achieved, materials used to 3D print continue to expand, actual printing techniques and methods continue to be explored. While many advances have been made in the hardware itself, software capabilities and materials which can be used in the process continue to be enhanced as well. While at first, the method of 3D printing was very simplistic, an entire field called additive manufacturing continues to advance quickly.
DJ: What types of applications is 3D printing being used for?
Morris: 3D printing is used for many applications across many industries. Besides the medical industry that I am involved with, it is also being used in manufacturing nearly every industry from automotive to aerospace. The ability to rapidly manufacture an object using a 3d model which can be easily created and/or obtained is tremendously useful. One extreme example of this is a 3D printer in space. Because we might not be able to take with us everything we might need when we are in space or colonizing another planet and there are no hardware stores out there 3D printing technology will be critical – if you need a tool or replacement part that you don’t have you will be able to just print it. In short, 3D printing applications are literally limitless.
DJ: What are the limitations with the technology?
Morris: It would depend on your application but in general, there are a few areas that certainly have room for innovation. These include the fact that the 3D printing process is typically slow, for some applications, the resolution of the printing is limited, and the materials used for printing need to continue to expand. That said, there are also many incredible advantages such as the ability to print geometries and features that you could never achieve through traditional, subtractive manufacturing techniques.
The human heart is a complex organ.
The human heart is a complex organ.
DJ: What are the objectives of BIOLIFE4D?
Morris: Saving lives. Lots of them. Nearly 1 out of every 3 people in the developed world – globally – die from cardiovascular disease and there are billions of people alive now. And as unimaginable as it may seem, only about 5,000 heart transplants took place world-wide last year. In the US alone, only 2 percent of people waiting on the transplant list received donor hearts last year. We know that advances in the life sciences, bioengineering and 3D bioprinting are finally at a point where we can now undertake the process of bioengineering a human heart that is 3D bioprinted using a patient’s own cells as the bio-ink which can be used for transplantation for the patient. When we bring this technology to the market it can have a profound impact on the healthcare industry and humanity as a whole.
DJ: How does the technology work?
Morris: 3D bioprinting works essentially the same way as traditional 3D printing. We lay down 1 layer at a time based on a 3D model and build the heart from the bottom up. But instead of fusing the layers together by heat or curing the material with, for instance, UV light to make the layers join together (in our case that would kill the living cells we are using in the printing process) we place down a support scaffolding to keep the cells in their proper place and then let the normal biologic process do rest. The same process that happens in your body, called self-assembly, happens through the natural biologic process in our process.
Through millions of years of evolution, the cells just naturally know that they are supposed to join together and perform certain functions so they just do it. We have a really great description of this process on our website as well as an incredible video which illustrates this process. In the end, what we are essentially doing is providing the right conditions outside of the body to facilitate the process that happens naturally inside of the body and then we let nature finish the process off for us.
DJ: Why is the aim to use create transplantable hearts based on patients’ own cells?
Morris: We are using a patient’s own cells because it addresses all 3 of the main challenges we currently face. First, it addresses the supply problem. A patient would not have to wait on a list for a donor organ since they have supplied the “raw materials’ needed to bioengineer the heart – their own cells. Second, if we can use one individual’s cells to make their own bioengineered heart then their body will not reject the organ when it is transplanted since it will literally be made out of that patient’s own cells so their immune system will not attack it. And third, because the patient won’t reject the organ they won't need to undergo the massive immunosuppressant therapy currently needed to prevent rejection of a foreign donor organ. This would also have a huge benefit as in addition to saving their lives, also allowing for a much better quality of life as well.
DJ: At what stage is the technology at?
Morris: We know all of the pieces of the puzzle, we know where the pieces belong in that puzzle, and we now are working on making them all fit together in a safe, commercially viable process. We will also have to address challenges as we scale up towards human trials but the technology itself is at a place where we can move towards those goals. As we do, I’m sure the technology will continue to advance to meet the challenges we find but we have already come a long way and viable 3D bioprinters are already turning mainstream.
DJ: How are you seeking investors?
Morris: My background is with traditional sources of financing, such as VC funding, but when I started BIOLIFE4D I wanted to open up the opportunity for everyone to participate, not just the accredited investors and high net worth investors who traditionally are afforded the opportunity to invest in an emerging technology like ours before it goes mainstream. So we are seeking investors in BIOLIFE4D through equity crowdfunding. This is an investment, not a donation, and investors actually become shareholders in BIOLIFE4D through purchasing stock.
This means anyone can invest, even if it is at a small level, and in doing so, the individual not only becomes a part of the team helping to bring this technology to the market and save countless lives but also has a financial stake in the company -- so as BIOLIFE4D succeeds, so do they. The almost unimaginable scale of the people we could help globally is only rivaled by the potential value the company could potentially create for its shareholders. All anyone has to do to invest and become a shareholder in BIOLIFE4D is to just go to our website. And the more support we have, the sooner we will be able to bring this remarkable technology to the market.