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Axolotl Biosciences Is Shaping the Future of Regenerative Medicine with 3D Bioprinting – Interview with Dr. Stephanie Willerth

Axolotl Biosciences is a Canadian company specialising in the supply of innovative bioinks for 3D bioprinting of human tissue models. Their expertise lies in the development of bioinks that support the printing of 3D human tissues, particularly those produced by differentiating stem cells. Axolotl Biosciences emerged from an internationally recognised research group at the University of Victoria, where Dr. Stephanie Willerth has been a professor since 2010. The company was established in March 2020 with her former Ph.D. student, Dr. Laura Vega, as one of the co-founders. In an interview with 3Druck.com, Dr. Stephanie Willerth shares her perspective on 3D bioprinting for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

Regenerative medicine and tissue engineering are closely related fields that deal with restoring and improving the function of living tissue and organs. Tissue engineering is a key tool within regenerative medicine. It provides the technology and methodology to create complex tissues and organs that can then be used for therapeutic purposes.

Bioink is a key material used in 3D bioprinting, which is the process of creating complex biological structures and tissues layer by layer using 3D printing technologies. Essentially, bioink is a biocompatible material that serves as a scaffold to support and nourish cells that are printed into a specific shape. Containing a mixture of living cells and a gel-like substance, this material provides an environment that supports cell growth and differentiation, allowing the printed structure to mature into functional tissue over time. The properties of bioink are crucial as they must be precisely engineered to maintain cell viability and promote the proper biological function of the printed tissues.

Axolotl Biosciences’ initial product, TissuePrint, can be used to print a wide range of tissues using human cells. This technology was selected as one of the Methods of the Year by ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering. The fibrin-based bioink is compatible with extrusion-based bioprinters and produces stable and reproducible 3D structures that can remain in culture for over a month.

The company’s second product, BrainPrint, uses its patent-pending microsphere technology to enable the bioprinting of human neural tissue.  

Interview with Dr. Stephanie Willerth

In an interview with 3Druck.com, Dr. Stephanie Willerth, founder of Axolotl Biosciences, comments on the role of 3D bioprinting in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, the progress that has already been made and the potential future applications of this promising technology – from 3D printed organs to space travel.

In your opinion, what is the significance of 3D bioprinting for the field of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine?

Dr. Stephanie Willerth

Bioprinting enables the generation of human tissues that can be used for applications like drug screening and tissue replacement. This technology has become increasingly important as governments are moving to limit the use of animals for evaluating potential drug targets. I’ve been really encouraged by recent advance in the field. It was a major achievement when 3DBio Therapeutics implanted bioprinted ears into patients. 

Our bioinks are xeno-free so they can be applied to generating substitutes for diseased and damaged tissues. My research has also demonstrated how our “smart” bioinks, including Axolotl’s forthcoming product – BrainPrint, can be used to print models of healthy and diseased neural tissues. Researchers can then use these tissues to evaluate drugs to see if they induce cell death or inhibit neuronal signaling. Our 2023 paper in Biolectronic Medicine showed that we could generate bioprinted models of Alzheimer’s disease using cells taken from patients suffering from this disease, demonstrating how 3D bioprinting functions as a personalized approach to medicine.

Where do we stand today in the field of 3D printing tissue and organs from your point of view?

There have been some major breakthroughs, including bioprinted ears being transplanted into humans as I mentioned earlier. I think the technology is beginning to have widespread adoption, including by clinicians. Our collaborator – Aspect Biosystems – recently signed a major deal with NovoNordisk to generate tissues for treating diabetes and it is a good sign that such large investments are being made into this technology. Challenges still remain, including figuring out how to integrate vasculature into 3D bioprinted constructs so that larger organs can be printed and increasing the resolution of the printing process while maintaining cell viability. 

3D printing has continued to evolve over the past few years. What innovations or technological breakthroughs do you consider to be particularly important for the medical sector, particularly in the field of 3D bioprinting?

The development of bioprinted tissues that resemble the same structures and functions observed in vivo, as seen in our neural tissues, is an important advance. Demonstrating that we can replicate relevant biology in vitro is a huge step forward for the field. Another challenge to be addressed is generating the large numbers of cells needed to print physiologically relevant tissues and organs. Thus, I have been closely monitoring the progress in the field of bioreactors given our cell culture needs.

What impact do you think 3D bioprinting will have on the medical sector and possibly society as a whole in the coming years?

3D bioprinting enables the generation of personalized tissue models as these tissues can be produced from patient derived cells. Thus, this technology opens up the idea of producing personalized replacement tissues and organs in addition to the possibilities for drug screening that I mentioned earlier. I think it will help drive a movement towards personalized medicine in the upcoming years. There will also be a trend towards hospitals having 3D bioprinting centres that will be used to assess potential treatments for patients.

The other big area where 3D bioprinting has tremendous potential is for generating 3D printed meat. The ability to generate steaks or fish without having to farm or grow animals provides an interesting way of generating food. It also has implications for space travel as the generation of 3D bioprinted foods from cells would make it easier to have longer voyages in space.

Here you can find out more about Axolotl Biosciences and their innovative bioinks for 3D printing.

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