Promoting human embryonic stem cell chondrogenesis using 3D systems with Miguel Ferreira

In this interview with Miguel Ferreira (University of Manchester, UK), 3DMedNet takes a closer look at using bioprinting for articular cartilage regeneration.

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I am Miguel Ferreira, PhD student at the University of Manchester (UK). My work combines human pluripotent stem cells and 3D bioprinting to develop new strategies for articular cartilage regeneration. I completed my Masters in Bioengineering at the University of Porto (Portugal) in 2016 where I worked on developing a new hydrogel system for skin tissue engineering. During my studies, I was a part of two European Space Agency hands-on programmes to study cell behaviour under hypergravity conditions. Currently, I am also the Science Coordinator of the New Organ Alliance and a Management Committee member of SELGRA, the Student European Low Gravity Research Association.

Could you tell us about any current (or recent) projects? 

I am working on the development of an articular cartilage tissue model using human embryonic stem cells and 3D bioprinting. Currently, one of the greatest challenges in the cartilage tissue engineering field is to develop stable articular tissue that does not de-differentiate or undergo hypertrophic differentiation. In our lab, we are working on developing strategies to recapitulate embryonic development in vitro to generate cell types that are closely related to true articular chondroprogenitors. My role is to translate this into a scalable system, by using biomaterials and 3D bioprinting to automate the fabrication and generate complex tissue constructs.

How are 3D printing and bioprinting technologies involved with your work? 

We use 3D bioprinting to process biomaterials into supporting structures that can maintain cells in culture and promote their chondrogenic differentiation. 

In Manchester we have a great range of 3D bioprinting systems from companies such as RegenHU (Villaz-Saint-Pierre, Switzerland), Envisiontec (Gladbeck, Germany) and Cellink (MA, USA). I am currently using the RegenHU 3D Discovery Evolution bioprinter available at the Henry Royce Institute (Manchester, UK). This allows me to work with different types of biomaterials such as thermoplastics and cell-laden hydrogels. These can be combined into constructs for chondrogenic differentiation of human embryonic stem cells.

What challenges facing human embryonic stem cell chondrogenesis do 3D printing and bioprinting technologies help to overcome? 

Human embryonic stem cells are very sensitive to changes in cell culture conditions. 

The use of 3D bioprinting allows me to ensure high levels of reproducibility in my work by precisely controlling the fabrication of 3D tissue constructs. 

Keeping in mind that cartilage is a heterogeneous tissue, bioprinting also makes it possible to deposit different materials into complex geometries. This is important not only to create an adequate microenvironment for cell culture, but also to produce patient-specific implants, which may be relevant for future clinical applications.

Where do you see bioprinting in the medical field in 5–10 years’ time? 

I think one of the first applications of bioprinting will be to generate patient-specific implants with precise external geometries to fit within a tissue defect. 

This will possibly start with tissues for which regenerative medicine therapies are already available and in which defect size and shape are different from patient to patient such as skin, bone or cartilage. Then, bioprinting will find applications in solving other problems such as the creation of pre-vascularized tissue constructs. In my view, 3D bioprinting is the most promising way to solve this problem, which is critical to scale up development of bioengineered tissues.

In parallel with clinical applications, I believe bioprinting will be extremely valuable for the generation of more reliable in vitro models for drug screening and disease modelling to be used in industrial applications. 

This may have a significant contribution to increase the success rates of clinical trials while decreasing the need to use animal models in pre-clinical research.  

Do you have any final comments about medical 3D printing, bioprinting and/or human embryonic stem cell chondrogenesis you would like to share? 

As with other fast-growing technologies, it is very important to distinguish real science from hype. Bioprinting allows the creation of very intricate tissue architectures. However, these do not always equate with functionality. What may look like a bioprinted brain or heart is (at least for now) not an actual 'thinking' brain or 'blood-pumping' heart. 

Similarly, stem cells have the potential to be used to treat different medical conditions. However, scientific progress takes time and the public should be aware that 'miracle' treatments which are untested and not approved by regulatory agencies may end up being dangerous to patients.

Nevertheless, real progress is being made, both in the bioprinting and stem cell fields, which are bringing us closer to solving important scientific and medical challenges, and addressing the real problems that patients face every day. 

The opinions expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of 3DMedNet or Future Science Group.

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