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Bioartificial Kidneys and Tissue Engineering: Cyborg Future?

Written by: Zach Stamp
Date: 18 February 2019

UCSFs bioartificial kidney is an exciting breakthrough which circumvents the need for tissue-blood supply, using  cyborg-like silicon chips. In this article we explore UCSF’s Kidney Project, the latest applications of tissue engineering, and the recruitment trends within the pharma and biotech fields.

We have previously discussed how the fields of tissue-engineering and regenerative medicine are poised to yield market disruptions for biotech and pharma [read our article here].

Recap: What is tissue engineering?

Tissue engineering is the synthesis of biological tissues — usually via a combination of a scaffold, stem cells, and growth factors. Like the field of gene therapy, tissue engineering has progressed from early debates over radical science to viable and disruptive product lines.  

While regenerative medicine includes therapies to rejuvenate tissues, tissue-engineering seeks to replace tissues with de-novo implants that are either grown from the host or immune tolerant. A number of projects in recent years have utilised tissue engineering: 

In 2016 the Lancet reported that a Swiss group had taken biopsies of subjects’ nasal cartilage, expanded them in a lab on an electrospun scaffold, then replanted them successfully into full-thickness articular defects in the cartilage of the same subject's knee.  This is a potential therapy for knee osteoarthritis.
In 2017 scientists from Tokyo University reported on the use of implanted nasal cartilage grafts to treat facial defects in adults with cleft-palates. 
In 2018 Science Translational Medicine reported on the use of implanted tissue-engineered spinal discs to treat advanced disc degeneration in rats. 

The field holds promise for any degenerative disease that impacts irreplaceable tissues, such as cardiac valves, peripheral nerves, spinal cord, amputated limbs, and much more. 

However, the problem with tissue engineered constructs and a major barrier to evolution in the field has turned out to be relatively simple.  Once any engineered tissue grows beyond a few cell layers, it requires a nutrient supply to support itself.  In biological tissues, blood vessels support living cells by bringing nutrients and eliminating wastes.  But when seeking to de-novo engineer a tissue from cartilage, liver, or kidney stem cells blood vessels are an extreme complication — to create them requires creating a second tissue, interspersed with the first, composed of multiple cell types in layers, and highly complex to engineer.  

The blood vessel problem is a major barrier to innovation in the field of tissue engineering.  Here’s how one team is solving it...

The bioartificial kidney and blood vessels

Globally, between 8-16% of people suffer from chronic kidney disease. The dialysis industry was estimated at $40 billion in 2018.  Kidney transplants are the most common organ donation worldwide, and there are greater than 100,000 people with end-stage renal disease in the US waiting for a kidney transplant. 

Kidneys are composed of highly specialized cells that filter blood to form urine, and are essential for excreting wastes, balancing electrolytes, and maintaining healthy red blood cells. It’s now possible for these tissues can be engineered in the lab, and many research groups have made progress in this field. 

UCSF’s Kidney Project breakthrough 

One group, Dr. Shuvo Roy’s microelectrical mechanical lab at UCSF, has made an interesting breakthrough, which is relevant beyond just kidneys, to the entire field of tissue engineering.  

Many scientists have grown a functional tissue, then implanted it hoping it would vascularize. Or, have grown blood vessels into a scaffold, then cultured functional cells in the prevascularized structure. Dr. Shuvo Roy’s Kidney Project simply printed a silicon chip that carried nutrient supplies like a dialysis machine, then placed cells in the chip.  Rather than recreating complex biological tissues, they created a silicon chip that supported individual cells.  

This is essentially a simple concept, that stands to reverse all of tissue engineering. It’s possible that the best tissue-engineered grafts are not going to recreate biological architecture. On this basis, some believe that the implants of the future will be cyborg composites, functional cells living in an artificial matrix. 

Impact of tissue engineering R&D on pharma and biotech recruitment

We believe biotech and pharma would be well served to integrate tissue-engineering R&D into their portfolios because the field is poised for breakthroughs, and those breakthroughs are likely to disrupt established clinical markets. Experts in this field are valuable, and recruitment in this industry is at an all-time high.

Operating as part of the Phaidon International group, EPM Scientific is a specialist staffing agency, wholly focused on permanent & freelance recruitment within the life sciences sector.  

We are designed to enhance the connection between enterprise project management and recruitment services in complex drug & device development endeavors like tissue-engineering and regenerative medicine therapies. 

At EPM Scientific, we think holistically. We recruit the best talent to ensure superior medicines are available to patients and we believe in the positive evolution of human health.  As we’ve shown with the example of Dr. Shuvo Roy’s research group and the bioartificial kidney, the right perspective, and the right talent can take a complex, unsolvable problem and circumvent it to unlock potential across many disciplines. 

The right candidate for the right team takes skill and timing.  If you’re a hiring manager in pharma or biotech looking to extend your team with tissue engineering capacities,  or you’re a consultant with this expertise wishing to move into industry.  I’m happy to help you find the right fit.  

Please feel free to reach out directly at zach.stamp@epmscientific.com