BME lab a step closer to marketing drug-screening tool

2019 September — Thanks to a recent funding boost, a UVic researcher is closer both to commercializing her lab’s “neuro-bioink” product and to printing living tissues that could vastly improve the way drugs are tested for Parkinson’s disease and other conditions.

Stephanie Willerth in white lab coat and blue gloves at a busy lab bench filling a test tube
Stephanie Willerth, working in the lab.

This month Stephanie Willerth, Canada Research Chair and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, received the Michael Smith Foundation’s Innovation to Commercialization Award. Willerth and her team have spent the past few years developing neuro-bioink, a printable substance comprised of living human cells and critical nutrients that support their growth. At the same time, her lab has been working on printing tiny amounts of diseased and healthy 3D tissue models for use in screening drugs.

“With this funding, our short-term goal is to turn the neuro-bioink into a product we can sell, to get it into the market,” said Willerth, acting director of UVic’s Biomedical Engineering program. “The longer-term goal is to licence our tissue design to pharmaceutical companies as a reproducible tool for drug screening.”

Drug trials today are complex, lengthy and expensive and often fail. In the future, by using bioprinted tissues, it’s expected that new drugs will be brought to market much faster and without the use of pre-clinical animal testing. Today, researchers are finding ways to safely print out small amounts of engineered tissues. Someday, it’s hoped that lab-grown tissues could help solve global organ shortages.

In particular, Willerth and her team will bioprint neural tissues – similar to those found in the brain – from patient-derived stem cells so companies will be able to test drugs for use in people suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Previously, the team’s primary focus has been on bioprinting healthy neural tissues and from stem cells derived from patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

Willerth says the project will ultimately lead to better health outcomes for patients suffering from neurological diseases and disorders, which account for 6.7 per cent of the healthcare burden in Canada.

The award will provide Willerth $150,000 over each of two years. A portion of the funding will provide support for UVic grad students, who will receive training both at Willerth’s lab and at Aspect Biosystems, a Vancouver biotech company and leader in 3D bioprinting and tissue engineering. The firm has collaborated with Willerth for several years.

Pacific Parkinson’s Research Instituteis co-funding the award with the Michael Smith Foundation and has enabled Willerth’s lab to branch out into the additional research area.

“Parkinson’s is a new disease model for us to study,” said Willerth. “It’s going to be great to be able to work on this model.”

2019Sep27 AT