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Towards patient-specific drug screening

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A new breakthrough by the 3D stem cell printing team at Heriot-Watt could pave the way to individually tailored drug testing regimes, both reducing the need for animal testing and ensuring that patients receive drugs which are most effective for their individual needs.

The ability to bioprint (these) stem cells while either maintaining their ability to develop into all types of cells in the bod will pave the way for producing tissues on demand from patient specific cells.
Dr Will Shu

The team, led Dr Will Shu, at the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPS), originally put together the first 3D printer capable of working with delicate stem cells, a valve-based technique sensitive enough to print the sensitive cultures without damaging them.

That first printer was sensitive enough to work with laboratory grown stem cells derived from embryonic stem cells harvested generations ago. Now, working in conjunction with Roslin Cellab, the team has refined their printer so that it’s gentle enough to enable 3D printing of so-called ‘induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells’, derived from a donor’s own adult cells, which are even more delicate than the lab-grown embryonic stem cells.

This means the team will be able to print the cells in three dimensions without damaging the cells’ biological functions such as their ability to make a wide range of different cell types such as liver, heart and brain cells. A report on the team’s work has just been published in the IOP journal Biofabrication.

Reduce dependence on animal testing

The short term aims of the team are to use the cell printing process to make miniature 3D human tissues for general testing of pharmaceutical drugs and in the process reduce the current dependence on live animal testing. Once established, specifically made tissue from each patient would enable doctors to prescribe drugs most likely to work and with fewest side effects.

Dr Will Shu, Associate Professor at EPS, said, “This study is the first to demonstrate that human induced pluripotent stem cells, that is stem cells derived from the adult patient’s own cells, can be bioprinted without adversely affecting their biological functions; that our 3D printing process is gentle enough to do this. In this instance we showed that after printing we could turn the stem cells into liver cells.

“The ability to bioprint stem cells while either maintaining their pluripotency, their ability to develop into all types of cells in the body, or indeed directing their differentiation into specific cell types, will pave the way for producing organoids, or tissues on demand, from patient specific cells. These could then be used for animal-free drug development and personalised medicine.“

Roslin Cellab’s Dr. Jason King, who is also involved in establishing the new European Bank for Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (EBiSC), stated this would offer great potential for tissue engineers looking to use iPS cells made from donors with specific diseases to create new human disease models. This is already being done with some success for heart diseases and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.

Image: Image courtesy of IOP Publishing/Alan Faulkner-Jones and Dirk-Jan Cornelissen