3d-printed organs

Houston researchers are commercializing their human tissue-printing technology

Houston researchers are commercializing their organ 3D printing technology. Jordan Miller/Rice University

There may come a time when you or someone you love is in need of a new pair of lungs. Or perhaps it's a liver. It's not a scenario anyone dreams of, but thanks to Houston company Volumetric, you may never end up on a waiting list. Instead, that organ is made to order and 3D printed using a mix of medical plastics and human cells.

And this possibility isn't necessarily in the distant future. On the cover of the May 3 issue of the journal Science, is a contraption that looks a bit like a futuristic beehive. It's a working air sac complete with blood vessels, the beginnings of a technology that is perhaps only a decade from being implanted in humans. And it was crafted on a 3D printer in Jordan Miller's lab at Rice University.

Yes, there are shades of another Houston story — Denton Cooley's implantation of the first artificial heart — but Cooley only inserted the organ. Miller and his bioengineering graduate student Bagrat Grigoryan are primed to profit from their inventions.

In 2018, they started Volumetric Inc., a company that sells both the hydrogel solutions used for printing organs like theirs and the printers themselves. Touring Miller's lab in the Houston Medical Center is a visual timeline of his team's progress designing printers. The version being manufactured is a slick little number, small enough to fit under chemical exhaust hoods, but fitted with everything necessary to print living tissues. It's made and sold in cooperation with CellInk, a larger bioprinting company.

"Our technology is based on projection," Miller explains. Specifically, it's stereolithography, a type of 3D printing that produces the finished product layer-by-layer. Shining colored light of the right intensity turns the polymers into a solid gel.

But why start a company when Miller and Grigoryan are already busy with research?

"If we want to do translational research, commercialization is important," reasons Miller. "We need to build the market to get that technology into the world."

Miller explains that usually the inventor of a technology is the best one to bring it to market.

"When we were building this technology in the lab we saw the potential for commercialization," he recalls. "We do see that this technology is highly scalable. We do think it can have a positive impact on tissue models in a lab."

Those tissue models could one day make not just scientists, but also animal rights activists, very happy. With the technology that Volumetric is developing, scientists could eventually print human cells so well that animal models would be far less accurate in predicting the success that the product being tested would have on humans.

As academics, though, Miller and Grigoryan weren't sure how to start a company. Fortunately, there is the National Science Foundation (NSF) and its I-Corps program. The pair spent a couple of weeks doing a regional program that taught scientists how to commercialize their technology.

"They want to see funded research get out of the lab," Miller says, explaining that they moved on to the national I-Corps program while Miller was on sabbatical from teaching at Rice, allowing them to interview potential customers.

This gave them the confidence to launch last year. Grigoryan now works full-time at the Med Center incubator and accelerator, Johnson & Johnson's JLabs. He has a team of two other scientists on staff.

"It would have been a lot harder to get started if we didn't have a space like JLabs available," Miller says. It also helps, he adds, that JLabs takes no equity, only helping the fledgling brand to finalize its market and get hooked in with potential investors.

Volumetric has its demo units ready to go and expects to start shipping printers in late June, pending final certifications.

"We believe we have technology to make organ replacements for people," Miller says.

And someday soon, long waits for a new set of lungs and a life of antirejection drugs could be a thing of the past.


Rice University bioengineers (from left) Bagrat Grigoryan, Jordan Miller and Daniel Sazer and collaborators created a breakthrough bioprinting technique that could speed development of technology for 3D printing replacement organs and tissues. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

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Building Houston

 
 

This week's innovators to know include Steve Jennis of Founder's Compass, Denise Hamilton of WatchHerWork, and Chris DuPont of Galen Data. Courtesy photos

Houston's innovation ecosystem continues to grow. Last week, a group of startup mentors formed a new program that's a masterclass for aspiring entrepreneurs. Plus, a Houston innovator is writing the book on inclusion while another has a new partnership with a medical device company.

Steve Jennis, co-founder of Founder's Compass

Steve Jennis, along with three other Houston entrepreneurs, have teamed up to create a program based on each of their expertise that provides a launch pad for aspiring startup founders. Photo courtesy of Steve Jennis

Steve Jennis, a founder and mentor within the Houston innovation ecosystem, was thinking about opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs. While there are several accelerators within the ecosystem, they tend to be months-long programs that might require equity.

"A few months ago it struck me that maybe there was a gap in the market between the aspiring entrepreneur," says Jennis, "and the accelerator or incubator program."

Jennis tapped a few of his fellow founder-mentors to create Founder's Compass, an online masterclass for people who have a business idea but don't know what to do next. Read more about the new program.

Denise Hamilton, founder and CEO of WatchHerWork

Denise Hamilton is publishing a book that helps guide Black Lives Matter allies to make changes that will help them change the world. Photo courtesy of WatchHerWork

After developing a long career as a corporate executive, Denise Hamilton was fielding tons of requests to lunch or coffee to "pick her brain." While she loved helping to mentor young businesswomen, it was starting to become exhausting. "Frankly, there weren't enough hours in the day," she says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

So, five years ago, she turned the cameras on and started a library of advice from female executives like herself and created WatchHerWork. The company evolved to more, and now she's focused on diversity and inclusion consulting and leadership — and, amid COVID-19 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, she's particularly busy now. Stream the episode and read more.

Chris DuPont, CEO of Galen Data

Houston-based Galen Data, led by Chris Dupont, is collaborating with an Austin health device company on a cloud-based platform that monitors vital signs. Photo via galendata.com

Houston-based Galen Data Inc., which has developed a cloud platform for medical devices, and Austin-based Advanced TeleSensors Inc., the creator of the Cardi/o touchless monitor. Together, the two health tech companies are collaborating to take ATS's device and adding Galen Data's cloud technology.

Chris DuPont, co-founder and CEO, has led the company to meet compliance standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), cybersecurity organizations, and others.

"We knew that our platform would be a great fit for Cardi/o," Chris DuPont, CEO of Galen Data, says. "Speed was critical, accentuated by the COVID-19 crisis. We were well positioned to address ATS' needs, and help those at-risk in the process." Read more about the innovative Texas partnership.

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