For some three decades, scientists have been trying to figure out ways to create human organs from lab-grown cells. Thanks to a team led by Erin Bedford, Vancouver-based Aspect Biosystems is getting close—with a 3D printing process that uses human pancreas 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 repair bodily functions with 3D-printed tissue was so exciting,” she says, particularly because 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 keeps the pancreas from producing insulin. Currently the only cure is to implant 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 implanted.
Bedford says Aspect came to an early realization that it did not have to build an entire pancreas. It only needed to create the pancreatic tissues that produce insulin, engineered to evade detection by the immune system. At the heart of the technology is a fluid that contains pancreatic cells derived from stem cells, other biomaterials and a lot of water. This mixture is pumped through the printer, layer by layer, to create insulin-producing tissues that can be implanted anywhere in the body.
Aspect has already demonstrated that bioprinted tissues are an effective cure for Type 1 diabetes in rats, and Bedford says human trials are expected to start in the near future. The technology got a vote of confidence in April when Novo Nordisk announced a $75 million dollar investment and collaboration agreement with Aspect.
“We are exploring and pushing the limits of what this technology can do,” Bedford said, adding that Aspect is already working on a way to print liver tissues.
This story is part of Quartz’s Innovators List 2023, a series that spotlights the people deploying bold technologies and reimagining the way we do business for good across the globe. Find the full list here.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Aspect’s insulin-producing tissues that can be implanted in patients, not injected, and that Aspect’s next project is focused on liver tissue.