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BLOG CARNIVAL: Can 3D printing reverse aging?

August 25, 2021 – As a leader in the emerging field of bioprinting, developing biomaterial scaffolds for promoting induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSc) differentiation, Stephanie Willerth, PhD, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Engineering at University of Victoria, is tackling neurodegenerative disease associated with aging. The Stem Cell Network turned to Dr. Willerth to get her perspective on the reversibility of aging:

As someone who has spent their entire adult life thinking about and engineering neural tissue from stem cells, I found the prompt for this month’s blog carnival hosted by Signals to be intriguing – “Aging is far more reversible than we thought”. One of the reasons I became fascinated with stem cells in high school was learning about the science behind how the cloning of Dolly the sheep was possible and the ability of stem cells to generate entire organisms. Likewise, cellular reprogramming – where a somatic cell is converted from one state to another – also holds great potential for regenerative therapies. For example, skin cells can be converted into neurons – the cells responsible for sending and transmitting information in the nervous system – using cellular reprogramming technologies. Such research suggests that cells can be manipulated to change their fate – indicating their plasticity and providing a potential mechanism for reversing the aging process. Gene editing using methods like CRISPR has made it easier to manipulate cell behaviour, moving this technique of cellular reprogramming closer to being used for clinical applications in humans. Other interesting studies have shown that infusing blood from younger mice into older mice can also help alleviate some of the effects caused by aging, suggesting the possibility of reversing these effects on a larger scale.

My research group has used 3D bioprinting to generate neural tissues from stem cells as an important tool for studying the neurodegenerative diseases associated with aging and finding ways to reverse these effects. For example, our collaborator, Dr. Haakon Nygaard, an MD/PhD at the University of British Columbia, derives stem cell lines from his patients who are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. These cells can then be differentiated into the cells found in the brain and as these cells age, they exhibit the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Our group has observed similar effects when we have 3D bioprinted neural tissues using these diseased cell lines. Our goal is to use these 3D printed tissues as a tool to screen potential drugs by observing if they can slow down or reverse these symptoms in our 3D bioprinted neural tissues. In a recent paper from our lab, we used bioprinting to create a model of glioblastoma – a deadly type of brain cancer – where both healthy and cancerous cells were present. We demonstrated how a novel anticancer drug would selectively kill off the cancer cells while sparing the healthy cells present in these bioprinted tissue models, validating these tissues as an important tool for screening potential drugs.

3D bioprinting using patient derived stem cells provides an exciting avenue for personalized medicine as they can generate large amounts of human tissues that can be used to evaluate potential drugs as an alternative to animal models. Additionally, 3D bioprinting has the potential to produce tissues and organs on demand, which can also be used to treat the effects of aging. Some of the challenges faced when bioprinting larger constructs like organs include sourcing enough cells to produce these tissues, incorporating blood vessels into the tissues, and ensuring appropriate functionality. Overall, 3D printing has enormous potential in the battle to reverse aging.

To learn more about our technologies – here are some papers from the Willerth lab:

Commentary on using 3D bioprinting to Alzheimer’s

Recent paper bioprinting neural tissue similar to brain

Review paper discussing natural bioinks

Our blog post is just one of many covering this topic as part of Signal’s sixth annual blog carnival. Read what other bloggers think about this.