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How bioprinting pluripotent stem cells can take us closer to an Alzheimer’s cure

Biomedical engineer Stephanie Willerth and her team are bioprinting brain tissue models for drug screening

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Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders affect millions of people across the globe and are expected to become more prevalent as populations age. Despite how widespread the conditions are, however, there are still no real cures for the diseases, only treatments to lessen or control symptoms. Fortunately, 3D bioprinting processes are presenting a potential avenue for a cure, and researchers are beginning to explore the technology for drug screening applications. Canadian biomedical engineer Stephanie Willerth is one such researcher who is pioneering the use of bioprinting for brain tissues with her research group.

Finding a cure for neurological diseases has presented a massive challenge in the medical sector, largely because the tools needed to screen drugs have fallen short in accurately determining if a treatment will be effective and non-toxic. Research methods used largely rely on animal models and human cadavers, which are respectively inaccurate and hard to come by.

Bioprinting pluripotent stem cells
Stephanie Willerth, Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Victoria

By leveraging innovative bioprinting technologies, Willerth and her research group have found a potential solution to the research hurdle. That is, bioprinting technologies can be used to produce patient-specific neural tissue from pluripotent stem cells derived from the patient.

“Pluripotent stem cells possess two unique and defining properties. The first property is pluripotency which means they can become any cell type found in the body,” Willerth explained in a blog post. “These cells can also replicate to generate more stem cells, which is their second defining property.”

In the research, Willerth and her team are producing pluripotent stem cells by essentially reprogramming adult cells into a stem cell-like state, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). The reprogrammed cells can then be differentiated into tissues mimicking those found in the nervous system and can even replicate the features of various neurological diseases.

Bioprinting pluripotent stem cells

The research group is then able to print the iPSCs using Aspect Biosystems’ RX1 bioprinter to create models of neurological tissues. This capability has the potential to lead to much more accurate screening processes for drug targets. The RX1 has enabled the research team to bioprint complex structures that precisely position the cells and drug releasing mircrospheres. So far, the researchers have seen promising results, with high levels of cell viability, and have published a number of studies pertaining to the breakthrough work.

The ability to bioprint pluripotent stem cells could also have applications in forming structures that mimic the blood-brain barrier, which essentially protects the brain from toxins and other materials. Though it plays a critical role in our health, the blood-brain barrier also makes it difficult to deploy drugs to the nervous system, because it blocks them out. Bioprinting a blood-brain barrier model could help to further understand and test the efficacy of new treatments.

Willerth, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Victoria, concluded: “Overall, the field of 3D bioprinting in combination with iPSC technology offers huge potential for developing personalized medicine approaches to identifying promising drug targets for treating neurological diseases and disorders.”

Research being conducted at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in partnership with Aspect Biosystems is also aiming to develop bioprinted therapeutic models for overcoming the challenges of nervous system diseases.

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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