February 26, 2024

For about three decades, scientists have been trying to figure out ways to create human organs from lab-grown cells. Thanks to a team led by Vancouver-based Erin Bedford Aspect Biosystems get close—with a 3D printing process that creates human pancreatic cells to treat type 1 diabetes.

Bedford, now head of bioprinting innovation, was one of the company’s first employees when she joined in 2018. She had just earned a doctorate in nanotechnology from the University of Waterloo and wanted to work on a practical application in her field. “The opportunity to apply nanotechnology to replace and restore body functions with 3D printed tissue was so exciting,” she says, especially as it could provide a solution to a huge unmet medical need.

There are an estimated 8.4 million people worldwide who have type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that prevents the pancreas from producing insulin. Currently, the only cure is to transplant pancreatic tissue from a deceased donor, which means the patient is on a long waiting list and must take powerful anti-rejection drugs for life once the tissue is transplanted.

Bedford says Aspect realized early on that it didn’t need to build an entire pancreas. It was only necessary to create the pancreatic cells that produce insulin, designed to evade detection by the immune system. The core of the technology is a liquid containing pancreatic cells derived from stem cells, other biomaterials and lots of water. This mixture is pumped layer by layer through the printer to create insulin-producing cells that can be injected anywhere in the body.

Aspect has already shown that bioprinted cells are an effective cure for type 1 diabetes rats, and Bedford says human trials are expected to begin in the near future. The technology received a declaration of confidence in April Novo Nordisk announced A $75 million dollar investment and collaboration agreement with Aspect.

“We’re exploring and pushing the boundaries of what this technology can do,” Bedford said, adding that Aspect is already working on a way to print livers.

This story is part of Quartz’s Innovators List 2023a series that highlights the people who are deploying bold technologies and reimagining the way we do business for good around the world. Get the full list here.

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