August 22, 2006

Bioprinting breakthrough

Dennis Quick  /  Charleston Regional Business Journal

Biotech project could launch local kidney-producing industry

Biotech researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina and Clemson University believe they might have a solution for people needing kidney transplants.

They call it the Bioengineered Kidney Project, and it involves printing out layers of human cells, fusing the cells to form tissue and assembling that tissue into kidneys. The project was introduced in July at the debut of the Charleston Bioprinting Symposium at MUSC.

Researchers from Harvard University, Stanford University and as far away as Singapore attended the symposium, which featured presentations on cell-printing methods and technology. A cell-printing breakthrough came in 2003, when Vladimir Mironov, director of MUSC's Bioprinting Research Center, and Clemson bioengineer Thomas Boland used a modified inkjet printer to print tubes of three-dimensional living tissue.

With a glass slide as the "paper," the printer produced alternate layers of tissue cells in a non-toxic, biodegradable, cell-fusing gel. After the cell clumps fused and formed tubes of tissue, the gel was removed. Forming those tissue tubes is a key step to forming organs.

The Bioengineered Kidney Project hopes to convert that breakthrough into a local biotech industry providing kidneys for transplant patients.

Kidney demand

About 60,000 patients in the United States are waiting to receive a kidney, according to the National Kidney Foundation. A new name is added to the waiting list every 13 minutes; 17 people die each day while waiting for a kidney transplant. All told, more than 20 million Americans, an average of one in nine adults, have chronic kidney disease. Chronic kidney disease has a disproportionate impact on minority populations, especially blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.

"Bioengineering of living human kidneys will be especially good news for patients with end-stage kidney disease and also will directly address health care disparities as kidney disease occurs more frequently in minority populations in South Carolina," said Dr. John Raymond, MUSC provost and vice president for research. "This project will place MUSC on the national and world landscape as one of the leading institutes in the area of bioengineering and regenerative medicine."

Investment wanted

Producing bioengineered kidneys is a three-stage process, according to Mironov. The first two stages involve working with cell aggregates to form three-dimensional tissue. The third stage involves assembling the kidney. "We finished step one and are pretty close to finishing step two," Mironov said. "Then we can start building the whole organ."

Building a complete kidney could happen by 2012, Mironov estimated, but he cautioned that what is needed is more financial investment. To that end, Mironov and his colleagues are applying for several National Institute of Health grants, each worth between $5 million and $10 million. Additionally, the researchers will apply for a $15 million NIH grant for a national bioprinting resource and research center at MUSC.

The Charleston area could become a major kidney supplier if researchers receive enough funding from grants and venture capitalists, Mironov said. He pointed out that Cell & Tissue Systems Inc., an East Bay Street biotech firm that develops ways to repair and cryogenically store cells and tissues, helped its parent company, Organ Recovery Systems of Chicago, develop a kidney preservation and transportation device. MUSC's bioengineered kidney research and Cell & Tissue Systems could form the nucleus of a Lowcountry-based biotech industry, Mironov noted.