New Pathways for Medical Research

By Maidie Hilmo, PhD

In what direction is medical research going? It is clear from a step into the Willerth lab at the University of Victoria that the answer is quite simply: advanced technology. The brilliant Dr. Stephanie Willerth holds joint appointments in the Division of Medical Sciences and the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

She and her team have been a pioneering force in making significant progress in 3D bioprinting differentiated stem cells directly applicable to the neural tissues in patients with spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.

Incubator for producing bio ink

The process involves several steps starting with human stem cells cultured from blood draws obtained from UBC (UVic is one of the co-partners of the UBC Faculty of Medicine), which are then differentiated into stem cells, and then further into neural stem cells, subsequently printed with bio ink, and then eventually matured to show the characteristics of, for example, Alzheimer’s.

Engineered 3D bioprinted tissues from stem cells from people with and without the disease can be compared, which can help with diagnosis and identifying treatment options as well as repairing damaged neural tissue. The efficacy of different drugs can also be tested with greater immediacy and accuracy without involving lab animals. It is one of her goals to get the right drugs into people. In more outdated experimental methods some 95% of pharmaceutical drugs that are tested on animals fail in human clinical trials and never make it to market.

Dr. Willerth and the RXI bioprinter

Dr. Willerth found that using human cells and tissue engineering can generate tissues that better replicate human biology. Early in her career, she was struck by the differences between the biology of mouse and human stem cells. Animal blood just does not replicate that from the human immune system.

In the meantime, if you want to slow and possibly reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, you might try yoga. In an article Dr. Willerth co-published, neuronal cultures from human induced pluripotent stem cells led to findings that supported the positive effects of yoga on inhibiting Alzheimer’s. Future research might focus on how specific movements and meditative practices affect neuroprotective biomechanisms, especially those involved in Kirtan Kriya yoga originating in India. It would be interesting to know if engaging in some forms of painting, calligraphy, or music involving “physical, mental, and spiritual activities” might also work!

The scope of Dr. Willerth’s interests is further demonstrated by her collaboration with Dr. Ryan Flannigan and his team at UBC who managed, for the first time, to 3D print viable sperm cells from the testicular biopsy of a 30 year old man who had none in his ejaculate. This sort of research offers hope for couples wanting to start a family since male infertility can be about 50% as likely as not to be the deterrent in such cases.

Ever current with developing needs, as her extensive list of publications indicates, she has been involved in developing biomedical engineering strategies during the Covid crisis and investigating 3D tissue models to help study viruses and vaccine development. Her inspired students even 3D printed over 5000 face masks that have been used locally by medical personnel and even dentists. An interesting side effect of the pandemic is that research is trending away from static traditional methods involving years of experimenting on animals to evaluate drugs by moving in the direction of better technological modalities. If sourced and used wisely for the benefit of all, these offer real solutions.

Of course, there are still legal and political hurdles to overcome before such new technologies can become the go-to methods. Dr. Willerth is enthusiastic about the proposed bio-printing lab at the new St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. She would like to see a combined patient treatment and research facility in Victoria where the former could be treated on the main floor and research could be done on an upper floor.

For the moment, Dr. Stephanie Willerth and her team, including students, are a shining light illuminating the path forward.

For a list of Dr. Stephanie Willerth’s publications, see:
Most recently in April, 2022, see: “Protocols for printing 3D neural tissues using the BIO X equipped with a pneumatic printhead” at https://star
And in the supplement to the May issue of Cytotherapy 24(5):S155-S156: “Tissue Engineering, Embryonic, Organ and Other Tissue Specific Stem Cells: PARTNERING TO ADVANCE THE DEVELOPMENT OF TISSUE THERAPEUTICS WITH MICROFLUIDIC 3D BIOPRINTING”
For the video about the 3D printing of testicular cells, see:

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