Karen has studied biomaterials for almost 10 years during both her undergraduate career at MIT and graduate work at Stanford. She currently works at Aether, a 3D bioprinting startup, developing biomaterials for printing cells into living tissues for applications from drug development to full-organ printing.
Karen, could you let us know about your background and what brought you into 3D printing in the first place?
I became interested in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine in high school, which led me to pursue a degree in materials science and engineering at MIT. I was drawn to materials due to their ability to influence cell behavior by providing physical and chemical cues. During my graduate work I became very interested in bioprinting because it serves an unmet need in tissue engineering: the ability to pattern cells into complex 3D architectures such as vasculature. The bulk of my PhD thesis focused on developing biomaterials specifically for 3D printing, termed “bio-inks,” which in turn led to my role at Aether.
What was your very first experience with 3D Printing?
Before I started graduate school, my hands-on experience with 3D printing was minimal. I was drawn into the field because my PhD advisor, Sarah Heilshorn, and her lab had been doing a lot of work developing injectable hydrogels for cell delivery, and I thought some of the same material properties that were beneficial for protecting cells during injection would be beneficial for cells extruded through a 3D printer. After that I had a lot of playing catch-up to learn about 3D printing. I owe a lot to some collaborator’s labs who helped get me up to speed on the mechanical aspect of printing so that I could better engineer materials for that application.
Could you explain furthermore what Aether is and the services that you are providing?
Bioprinting has the capability to revolutionize healthcare with applications from personalized medicine to high throughput drug testing, however researchers are currently held back by the limitations of today’s 3D bioprinters. These limitations include limited printable materials and fabrication methods that limits tissue-scale complexity, the difficulty of use and lack of automation, and extremely high price-tag (some upwards of $250K) limiting access to technology. Aether developed a new printer with more capabilities and a lower price tag that current commercially available bioprinters.
How did you came to join the company?
I had been in touch with the CEO of Aether since my PhD work on biomaterials development for 3D printing. When I was finishing graduate school, we connected about the possibility of developing biomaterials to augment the unique capabilities of Aether’s printers.
What differentiate your 3D bioprinter from the others on the bioprinting market?
Aether’s first printer, Aether 1, has more fabrication methods and is able to print more materials at once than any other commercially available printer. Using Aether one, researchers can print with up to 24 materials at a time allowing them to attain tissue-level complexity.
What can you print with it? Can you 3D print tissues and organs?
The goal is to be able to print 3D tissues and organs, however we have been extremely interested in the other applications current users have come up with as well. This year we started shipping out our first units and have already received a lot of feedback on the capabilities of the printer and use-cases that we hadn’t thought of. It has been really exciting to help develop this tool and then see what researchers are able to do with it.
Your have a material engineering background, could you tell us more about the role of material choice in bioprinting? How does it influence the tissue?
I first became interested in materials science and engineering from a tissue engineering standpoint. There has been really interesting work done on how cells sense the mechanical properties of their surroundings to influence differentiation and behavior. To me this seemed like a really interesting tool to be able to engineer functional tissues by influencing cells through materials. This translates to bioprinting as well- the bio-inks you use will depend on the type of material you are trying to create: if you wanted to print a bone tissue you would want to use a different material than what you would use for muscle tissues, etc. Thus we aim to develop a suite of bio-inks that span a range of tissue types.
Do you have any (fun or not) story about your career to share with us?
I always think it’s funny how quickly the ball started rolling in 3D printing for me. As I mentioned above I had very little 3D printing experience before graduate school and I ended up focusing most of my PhD on it. Furthermore my graduate lab had little to no experience with bioprinting and now developing bio-inks is a big part of the lab’s focus. It’s fun to see an idea of yours have a lasting impact on your lab’s focus.
Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about?
As I mentioned earlier we have been eager to explore other applications and use-cases outside of healthcare for our printer. Recently we released a video of our printer being used for art applications such as drawing, painting, and laser-etching. We hope to have more exciting announcements for new uses in the near future.
What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?
I am passionate about using 3D printing to decrease the time and money involved in drug testing. In that vein, I am really excited to see how 3D printing can be included in microfluidics and organ on a chip technologies. There has been some really exciting work out of the Wyss institute at Harvard on this.
Bioprinting is really impressive and it seems to grow fast. What do you think of this industry today? And how would you like to see it evolve?
I really look to the rapid growth of traditional 3D printing of metals and thermoplastics as an example. Additive manufacturing has been around for over 30 years but has grown extremely rapidly over the past 10 years, leading to increased accessibility of the technology. Today some K-12 students have 3D printers in their libraries, which is truly incredible. We have seen the results of this wide accessibility: individuals are able to take their ideas from concept to fruition faster than ever before. I hope that bioprinting will follow suit once we make the technology more affordable and accessible. I hope once more labs have bioprinters on their bench we can see research move faster and more efficiently than ever before. As new scientists from different fields have come into contact with our printer, each of them come up with an exciting new application to help improve their research, which is really exciting for us.
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?
Definitely increasing accessibility is key- the more access to 3D printers women have and at a younger age the better. The beauty of 3D printing is that it has a fairly quick learning curve- a new user can go from little knowledge to printing a small object and the excitement of manufacturing your first object is really motivating.
Thank you for reading and for sharing!