Mark Ungrin, PhD, University of Calgary

Expanding the impact of a commercial success story

Three-dimensional cell clusters – often referred to as microtissues, organoids or spheroids – are drawing increasing interest for both basic research and therapeutic applications. Capable of mimicking organ or tissue development, function and response to drugs and toxins more accurately than previously possible, microtissues offer a wealth of possibility for researchers to study cell interactions, disease development and for drug testing. The knowledge gained informs efforts to develop lab-grown tissues and organs, and the microtissues themselves also have therapeutic potential.

Dr. Mark Ungrin at the University of Calgary has been working to advance this field with the help of an Impact award from the Stem Cell Network. Several years ago, Ungrin developed a lab device that allowed the formation of large numbers of microtissues. In collaboration with the Canadian company STEMCELL Technologies, this was translated into a commercial product, now sold internationally under the AggreWell brand name. This product is a cell phone-sized plastic platform containing six or twenty-four small chambers (similar to petri dishes), each in turn containing thousands of microscopic pits (“microwells”) able to form tiny, uniform microtissues.

The 2016-18 SCN project builds on AggreWell’s success by expanding these plates into small bioreactors, dramatically increasing the total number of microwells, to enable the production of the quantities of microtissues that will be needed for large-scale drug testing and eventual clinical applications. To do this, Ungrin’s team set out to optimize the manufacture of the plate to create a stacked bioreactor system in which each of the layers can receive the right amount of oxygen and nutrient exchange in a closed environment. The research involved finding the right materials and geometry and confirming that they can support microtissue production consistent with previous versions of the technology.

The resulting prototype is now in final testing phases, with a member of the Ungrin team travelling to STEMCELL Technologies’ head office in Vancouver for several months in 2018 to collaborate on establishing the necessary manufacturing processes for large-scale delivery of a commercial product for use by labs around the world.

Project Outcomes

  • Significant progress in development of a functional, accessible, easily manufacturable mircowell bioreactor
  • Initiated translation to a viable commercial product with established industry partner