Rohan ShirwaikerIndustrial engineers at North Carolina State Industrial and Systems Engineering (NC State ISE) are collaborating with biologists and medical doctors for an uncommon approach to regenerative medical research. When people ask Oha Harrysson, Associate Professor and Fitts Fellow in Biomedical Manufacturing at NC State ISE, why industrial engineers involve themselves in regenerative medical research, he says industrial engineers help streamline the research and increase yields through quality control systems.

NC State ISE encounters many challenges in their venture to commercialize engineered tissue for printed organs. Yet, not all of these challenges are related to production of engineered tissue. If their research is going to survive, NC State ISE recognize that they must collaborate with others and find alternative uses for engineered tissue. 

According to Rohan Shirwaiker, Assistant Professor at NC State ISE, engineered tissue and organ research has been around for 10 to 15 years, and although regenerative medicine research has advanced in the past several years, roadblocks still exist in engineered tissue research and commercialization. Shirwaiker and Harrysson believe repeatability, reliability and quality are the three biggest challenges when trying to scale up the use of engineered tissue outside of labs.

Those same challenges were present in the research of Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) when NC State ISE first started partnering with them. According to Shirwaiker, WFIRM had a 50 percent yield, which means if they aimed to generate 400 cells from a biopsy, they could only reach 200 cells most of the time. After looking at the process WFIRM was employing, NC State ISE improved the yield to almost 100 percent through optimization and process engineering, creating a new process that is repeatable and reliable. NC State ISE employed a similar process to discover a different method for skin expansion, on which NCSU and WFIRM have a patent pending. 

Quality of the engineered tissue is an obvious roadblock. The printed or engineered organs need to be fully (or mostly) functional and be produced from healthy engineered tissue. These attributes can be difficult for researchers to produce. The technology and processes are delicate when creating engineered tissue, and although regenerative tissue research has been around for years, the solutions are still fairly recent.

According to Harrysson, five or six years ago many startup companies were trying to produce engineered tissue products. However, due to funds and the high-maintenance nature of the technology being researched, many of those companies failed. Harrysson points out the successful programs relied on collaboration. Yet, such an idea directly contradicts the mentality of keeping information from competing research groups because of the prospective earnings.

“The topic is so multidisciplinary that it is not going to be only medical doctors or only engineers that are going to solve it,” says Shirwaiker.

NC State ISE successfully transplanted a few small, simple organs, including a bladder, and NC State ISE and WFIRM hope that their new skin expansion process may aid burn victims in the near future. However, Harrysson and Shirwaiker believe that the engineered tissue is more appropriate for diagnostic purposes than creating organ factories. Harrysson mentions cancerous tissue is easily grown compared to healthy tissue, and can be used to develop and screen drugs. In Shirwaiker’s opinion, time is needed to develop the technology for regular, commercialized application. However, engineered tissue could be used for diagnostic purposes within the next five to six years. 

The reality of the situation is that time, funds and collaboration is necessary to make transplantable 3D printed organs a reality. More research on creating a reliable, repeatable, high quality process to engineer tissue has to be completed. That is why Harrysson wants to remind people not to get too excited over printing transplantable organs, remarking “it is the goal someday, but it is still going to take us a while to get there.”