By Rich Bailey

Here’s a new addition to the ever-growing list of Things 3D Printing Can Do: make cell culture media that include two-layer vascularities — essentially blood vessels — allowing drug companies to test how new drugs in development perform in vascular tissue without using living creatures.

Nestegg Biotech is a 2014 Gig Tank startup formed by undergraduates from the University of Alabama at Huntsville to build a 3D printer that will do exactly that. The group has seed funding from the University of Alabama to build a 3D printer and was accepted into Gig Tank to build out the company. They expect to be in production by the end of the year. I spoke with Tanner Carden, the president of the company.

Tanner Carden, right, and collaborator Devon Bane with Nestegg Bio's CarmAl extruder.

Tanner Carden, right, and collaborator Devon Bane with Nestegg Bio’s CarmAl extruder.

Rich Bailey: What is Nestegg Biotech?

Tanner Carden: Originally it was a group of friends that converged around the idea of using 3D printing in innovative ways. At first it was “Let’s try and have some fun printing with sugar.” That was based off of some work done in the open source community online by Jordan Miller, a bunch of different people. Just giving free files and messing around with all kinds of different printers.

So that’s where it began. Then we started thinking about niche markets where 3D printing and additive manufacturing are not being used. And one of those is in drug testing, drug development. So we did a little bit of research, we did a few business plan competitions, and we won a couple. Through that we saw that a lot of these drug companies — Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson, etc. — they’re spending hundreds of millions, if not billions, on nothing, subsidizing the loss of the failed drugs.

Once a drug gets through the FDA process — 9, 10 years — that drug is now tested good to be on the market. Well, it cost them nearly 4 billion dollars because of all the other drugs that failed along the way. And those drugs fail at various parts of testing — over here in preclinical trials, over there in human clinical trials — all along the spectrum they fail. But the further along in the testing they get, the more expensive for the company. So your medication is directly impacted by how much it costs to develop it.

We started looking at a way we could use 3D printing for good, to make a difference in people’s lives. I think cost of drugs is a pretty decent way to help people.

So we have a product called Organalog — like the word organ smashed with analog — which is a tool. It is not tissue. It is not biologically active. It’s biofriendly, nontoxic material that is a toolkit for drug developers to grow tissue on. It’s a scaffold. It’s also self-contained, like a Petri dish.

The entire thing is 3D printed. We’re shipping to drug companies this fall, this winter, giving them a taste of what they can do with it, what they can grow with it. And the preliminary papers we’ve looked at using different techniques to make vascularized tissue constructs show that not only is there a higher viability rate for the tissue, the tissue survives longer. It doesn’t have necrotic pores developing.

Is yours vascularized?

Yes. Not only is it more viable, it simulates drug delivery as well as efficacy. That is something that is not on the market. People have drug delivery products out there, even some in Huntsville, little layered micro tube channels. You send your drugs to them and you see where they end up. You can do it with dyes, you can run assays, you can see how exactly your drugs ends up where it needs to be in a vascular system. But you can’t see how it behaves biologically on the physiology of a lumen, which would be another word for blood vessel. With Organalog you can.

It mimics the physiology of a blood vessel?

Yeah, it essentially is. With the current methods, people are content with producing a lumen of just endothelial cells, which are common in the body. But that’s not a blood vessel. A blood vessel is at least two layers deep, two different layers of cells. We’re also going to be providing smooth muscle tissue. We have a method we believe will allow us to seed those two layers deep.

If I watch this printer making a tissue matrix, what’s that going to look like?

Well, initially the product is going to look like a block, because a lot of it needs to be dissolved away. It’s a support scaffold. That’s how we can get a beautiful vascular formation. Because you can’t just print into thin air with a 3D printer. It doesn’t solidify fast enough, it’ll just fall apart. So we’re printing with two different materials that will dissolve in two stages. We dissolve one with something that won’t dissolve the second one. And then later drug companies can come back and dissolve the other part as well to create their gel matrix.

And a pharmaceutical company will take that and do what with it?

They’ll set it up in their lab, they’ll plug in some tubing, and when they’re ready they’ll make their mixture of agarose gel or matrigel or whatever type of cell media they want — I’m sure we’ll be making models for different types of cell media — and then they can flow that in. It solidifies as a gel just like gelatin would. Imagine making gelatin on a stove. You heat it up, it’s liquid, you pour it into the mold, then it becomes a gel.

So you’re selling a mold.

Yes, but it’s a reverse mold. There’s a structure in there. The gel flows in, it solidifies around the structure, and then the structure dissolves into the gel and you have a negative mold left. You have negative space left, little vesicles, little vascularities.

After you’ve done the first dissolve, you seal it, it goes to the pharmaceutical company. When they’re in their clean lab, they open the seal and put their drug in. Then what?

When the tissue has been growing, when they’ve got their sample and they want to take a biopsy to see how their drugs have been interacting with the tissue, they’ll be able to pop that open and take their biopsy.

And there’s nothing like this on the market?

Not that we’re aware of. There are people out there that offer scaffolds for tissue engineering. Most of those aren’t 3D printed, but some of them are.

Then on the other end of the spectrum, there are people offering full-on tissue printing. Organovo has a process where they’re cold-extruding live cells. We’re not screwing around with that yet

Our niche is we have a product that allows people to grow their cells in it but doesn’t fit anywhere into the FDA process. If you were a drug company, you would use this product at the very beginning of drug development, before you even put it into a rat. You would use this to determine if it’s even viable enough to take it to the next step. That’s where our niche is and where we’re comfortable. Some day we may try to get out of the low-cost provider niche, but that’s where we are.