RAPID CITY, S.D. (April 10, 2023) – B9Creations, a global provider of additive manufacturing solutions, has partnered with a South Dakota Mines research team to study the causes of osteoarthritis and build foundational knowledge necessary to someday find a cure for the disease – something that has plagued researchers for decades. While some of the largest brands in medical, such as Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, have spent billions to no avail, one scientist 3D printing fluidic devices to model the complex interactions between cells in human joints may hold the solution.
The ultimate goal is a type of “joint-on-a-chip” device. The term “joint-on-a-chip” is an evolution of “lab-on-a-chip,” which is a class of device that meshes and automates multiple lab techniques into one system that could fit on a chip no bigger than a few square centimeters in size.
Leveraging B9Creations 3D printing technology, the Mines research team has pioneered and patented breakthrough technology – and established a subsequent startup company – that could be a key to finding a cure for osteoarthritis. This technology, called CellWell, in combination with 3D printed housing that connects CellWell with technologies modeling other parts of the joint (e.g., bone model, synovial membrane [i.e., joint capsule] model, etc., enables the study of cartilage cells in a way that partially mimics their natural state and allows researchers to observe and test cartilage cells in new ways. This unique combination of tools offers insights into the causes of osteoarthritis that were impossible before.
Wood says that for hundreds of years, doctors have considered osteoarthritis a “wear and tear” disease, but we know now that it’s more complicated. It’s actually an imbalance of the behavior of the cells in the joint.”
“Currently when cartilage cells are removed from the body to be studied in a traditional 2D culture system, they are notoriously difficult to work with because they basically transform into a completely different cell type within a week and a half,” Wood says. More advanced 3D culture systems prevent this from happening but create incompatibility with techniques to analyze the cells. “Our technology mimics human tissue structures to keep cells behaving in the lab the way they would in the body without limiting our ability to study their behavior.”
Scott Wood, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the NanoScience & Biomedical Engineering Department, and his students lead the research and development of the nanoscience technology now utilized by his startup, CellField Technologies. “We’re excited about the potential future of the technology and the company,” Wood says. “We hope it will be a game-changer in osteoarthritis research.”
The CellWell technology developed by Wood and his students – a combination of nanotechnology, micropatterning, and “mechanically-tunable” thin-film composite materials – acts as an “egg carton” for individual cells, nesting each one in an environment that allows it to maintain its physiological nature without restricting their ability to be studied. ”It can maintain the physiological cell shape and biomarker profile of chondrocytes, the cells found in healthy cartilage, for at least 28 days, four times as long as competing micropatterned technologies.”
Wood says the new technique will allow scientists to evaluate the cartilage cells as a part of the entire joint, which has multiple types of cells that communicate with each other. Most research to date involves studying the chondrocytes independently of the other cells in a joint. Wood’s research uses “traditional and state-of-the-art genomic, proteomic and imaging techniques” to study the cells.
The project has earned hundreds of thousands in funding, including a competitive National Science Foundation I-Corps grant. And once the technology for stabilizing the chondrocytes had been developed, the CellField team sought to identify how it could be utilized by researchers and industry members.
After interviewing more than 150 leaders in business and commercial enterprises, the team learned that big pharmaceutical companies typically contract out their pre-clinical research, and that small- to mid-size pharmaceutical companies are the ones focused on osteoarthritis cures. As a result, the CellField team realized that the best use of their technology is to work as a research arm for those smaller pharmaceutical companies. “What we learned was that the company should not be a manufacturing company but a research company,” he says. “It’s the smaller startup companies and mid-sized pharmaceutical customers who we think will be our target market initially.”
“We’ve got some exciting new developments that we’re working on in order to meet the needs of pharmaceutical scientists,” Wood says. “And we hope that because of our work, we can someday see a cure for this and other debilitating joint diseases.”
Last year, Wood won a highly competitive National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award for his work. The NSF describes the CAREER award as the “most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.” Faculty from only 500 of the over 5,000 universities and research institutions in the U.S. receive this award annually to fund their research.
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About South Dakota Mines
Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines is one of the nation’s leading engineering, science, and technology universities. South Dakota Mines offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees and a best-in-class education at an affordable price. The university enrolls 2,493 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 97 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $68,685. For these reasons, South Dakota Mines is ranked among the best engineering schools in the country for return on investment. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Snapchat.