2018 B.C. Tech Summit features 3D printed neural tissue that could fight brain diseases

Featured at the 2018 B.C. Tech Summit, biomedical engineer Dr. Stephanie Willerth is working to create living neural tissue with a 3D printer.

Printed neural tissue could one day change brain and spinal treatment

Dr. Stephanie Willerth's goal is to one day replace damaged, living tissue with 3D printed cells. (University of Victoria)

The largest technology conference in Western Canada is returning is Vancouver — and one of this year's displays is straight out of a science fiction novel.

Beginning Monday and taking place at the Vancouver Convention Centre, the three-day B.C. Tech Summit will showcase new technology that can change industries.

Conference speakers include Premier John Horgan and federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains.

The University of Victoria is sending a team of researchers to present their newest innovations in the fields of health, clean energy and environmental stewardship.

One researcher, Dr. Stephanie Willerth, a biomedical engineer, is working toward using 3D printers to create living, functioning human neural tissue.

"The long-term goal is to engineer replacements for diseased or damaged tissue," said Willerth.

Stem cells

In the past, Willerth's research has focused on engineering neural tissue predominantly from stem cells.

Certain types of stem cells can change their cell type and be used to create new tissues, like the ones found in a brain or spinal cord.

For her new tissue printing project, Willerth teamed up with B.C. tech firm Aspect Biosystems and is using its latest 3D printing technology to create models of neural tissue.

Currently, the 3D prints are just models — they can't replace living tissue.

But the hope is that the models will help us better understand how a brain or spinal cord works, how spinal injuries can be healed, how neural diseases can be treated and, one day, provide a new way to test drugs.

Drug testing

Willerth said roughly 90 per cent of new drugs don't make it to the market due to unforeseen side effects in humans that don't occur in test animals such as rodents.

When her work does create printed neural tissues, pharmaceuticals won't need to be tested on animals, said Willerth. Instead, drugs can be tested on the 3D printed cells.

"With your brain, not only is there a structural element, there are also these chemical and electrical signals that you have to replicate as well," said Willerth, smiling.

"So it's quite a challenging engineering problem." 

Along with Willerth's printing, convention goers will be able to see groundbreaking innovations in heart disease research, brain wave monitoring, energy-conserving insulation, and more.

The B.C. Tech Summit runs May 14-16.

With files from North by Northwest