Born as a spin-out of the University of Strathclyde, Scotland-based Biogelx is pioneering the development of tunable synthetic materials for 3D bioprinting applications. The startup, which has been developing synthetic peptide hydrogels since 2013, is now preparing to commercially launch its first bioinks, suitable for a range of bioprinting applications.
In the lead up to the launch, we spoke to Biogelx CEO Mitch Scanlan about the company’s goals and ambitions within the emerging bioprinting sphere as well as how its synthetic biomaterials offer a number of advantages over more common natural hydrogels. As became clear through our conversation, Biogelx see huge potential in the bioprinting market and is keeping a keen eye on the industry’s future but is also focusing on current applications for its innovative bioprinting products.
Taking on commercialization
“I spent 35 years working in life sciences,” Scanlan begins, giving some background on himself. “Predominantly, my background is commercial—I worked in a range of sales and marketing roles in both large corporate and small startup environments in early stage drug development. I joined Biogelx at the beginning of last year to support the company in its commercialization phase. The company has been developing its synthetic peptide hydrogel technology over the last four to five years, and I came in 12 months ago to refocus the company’s commercial activities with a key emphasis on bioinks and 3D bioprinting.”
So far, the commercial side of the business seems promising, as Scanlan reports that Biogelx grew sales by about 50% last year. This, he says, is largely because of the company’s commitment to innovating and offering biomaterials that are versatile and support cell growth.
“When the company set up, it was developing a 3D cell culture scaffold, but that market is busy—there are quite a few companies selling 3D scaffolds already and it is hard to stand out from the crowd,” he elaborates. “The high growth 3D bioprinting sector has emerged in the last 3-4 years and is much more exciting for Biogelx as our materials not only grow cells in 3D but are very reproducible and print very nicely when compared with other bioink materials on the market.”
Biogelx has developed a synthetic peptide bioink for cell cultures that is sold to research labs and companies as a lyophilised powder, and which can be tuned to different stiffnesses by simply adjusting the ratio of powder, water and calcium salts. The addition of calcium ions causes the hydrogel’s peptide fibres to crosslink, forming a fibrous network that can be varied to match different tissue types, including soft tissues like brain and liver as well as very hard tissues like cartilage and bone.
“There’s no other material out there that has the ability and the versatility to adapt to such a wide range of different tissue types,” Scanlan says. “Being able to provide synthetic materials that can mimic the physical environment of tissues is important when you’re trying to grow cells. When looking to start 3D bioprinting in a reproducible manner, further development was required of our core technology platform, and this has culminated in the forthcoming launch of our new bioink range.”
“When you print something, you really want to be able to print a continuous filament of material to build that structure up,” he continues. “Our original hydrogel formulations print as droplets, so they were not suitable for a lot of extrusion-based 3D bioprinting techniques. In order to address this we have modified the printability of our technology platform by incorporating additives which change the viscosity of our biomaterials making them more suitable for specific bioprinting applications.”
Compared to naturally derived hydrogels, such as alginate and collagen, synthetic hydrogels, like those developed by Biogelx, offer more robustness and reproducibility, two factors which are crucial for drug development and other biomedical research avenues.
“Materials that are available today, predominantly based on natural hydrogel materials, don’t really provide the reproducibility required for bioprinting and research applications, so I think as the industry continues to develop, the bioinks will evolve as well, bringing synthetic, chemically defined, non-animal derived materials to the forefront,” Scanlan elaborates. “It’s very difficult to use bioinks in complex cell biology applications if you have an inherent variability in your bioink, that differs from one batch to the next.”
A simple recipe
In addition to the reproducibility and versatility of Biogelx’s synthetic bioinks, the materials also boast a certain level of independence compared to their naturally derived counterparts. As Scanlan explains, these synthetic bioinks do not require any specific pH or temperature adjustments to exhibit good printability, nor do they require UV curing.
“One of the reasons people like our materials and are starting to use them for bioprinting is that they are supplied as lyophilised powders that you simply add water and a source of calcium ions -such as cell culture media- to produce a printable material. I think the simplicity and ease-of-use of these synthetic materials will enable people to use them more widely in the future and avoid the need for complex temperature and UV controls.”
Broad use across bioprinters
As a chemistry company, Biogelx is not in the business of developing bioprinting hardware, though it does maintain an interest in the bioprinter market, hoping to make its bioink materials as widely compatible as possible. At its facility in Lanarkshire, the company uses a CELLINK bioprinter to conduct tests and proof of concepts on its bioinks, but also works closely with research partners who have demonstrated excellent printability with a range of 3D bioprinters including REGEMAT 3D and REGENHU systems.
“I think the hardware is evolving significantly,” Scanlan tells us. “And the pricing of bioprinters has come down phenomenally, from several hundreds of thousands to five to ten thousand pounds, making the technology accessible to many more researchers. We have a range of collaborative relationships and partners that we work with, several of whom are very local to us in Scottish academia. They have a range of different printing technologies, so we reach out to them once we’ve got something that works to test performance using a range of commercial bioprinters.”
Turning to the market, Scanlan acknowledges that at this stage in bioprinting’s evolution, revenues are driven by bioprinter hardware, because people are now buying systems. Down the line, however, he believes the real value in the market will be centered on consumables and bioinks. He says: “Our ambition is to develop a versatile material that supports bioprinting applications and to work in a collaborative way with partners who are looking for reliable reproducible, printable biomaterials.”
Despite the hot topic within bioprinting being the ability to print organs, these applications are a long way from commercialization and Biogelx is targeting more immediate applications in drug screening where there is a need for drug developers to create better and more physiologically relevant in vitro models that are more predictive and representative of in vivo environments.
“3D bioprinting is effectively printing a defined structure that can support cell growth, so the potential applications in regenerative medicine, tissue engineering and drug development are extremely abundant,” Scanlan says. “Today, we’re primarily targeting research applications, however, in the future clinical applications offer significant market growth and could be a big opportunity for us as well.
“Some of these other opportunities are 10-15 years away, so it’s really critical for us—as a small company—to focus on where the opportunities are now and develop bioinks that are appropriate to those more immediate market opportunities.”
Scanlan points out that while most of the bioprinting innovations are being pioneered by research labs and academia, pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms are also taking an interest in the technology. “They’re watching the market emerge and waiting to see where the commercial traction is before they really jump in and start to engage more with it,” he says.
Big pharmaceutical companies are investigating bioprinting for applications in drug discovery and drug screening, as this could enable them to drastically reduce the costs of testing and validating drugs. Scanlan highlights that much of the drug development cost is due to failure in late stage clinical trials, costing a pharma company between $800 million and $1.4 billion.
“You can see why they’re very interested in bioprinting,” Scanlan adds. “If you’re going to drive down the costs of drug development, you need to develop more physiologically relevant models in drug development to screen the drugs and make sure that the right drugs are moving through and the wrong ones are being eliminated early in the development process.”
Synthetic bioinks are the future
“We have a vested interest, but I think synthetic materials or non-animal derived materials will be the ones that evolve to drive bioprinting forward,” Scanlan says. “At this moment in time, we’re still talking about research materials, but they will progress and start to move into defined applications.
“Other companies are developing synthetic bioinks, but I don’t think there is anything on the market that has the versatility of ours. You might have a material to grow liver cells, but if you wanted to print and grow cartilage, it wouldn’t work because you don’t have the flexibility to tune the materials to specific applications.”
Looking at the bioink market at large, Scanlan concludes: “If I categorize the market, you’ve got animal-derived hydrogel materials (like collagen and gelatin), other natural hydrogels such as alginate which comes from seaweed and then a range of synthetic polymers and hydrogel materials. At Biogelx, I think we have developed a unique synthetic bioink which is versatile and can be adapted to a wide range of market applications. Although we believe we are ahead of our competition at the moment, the market is evolving very rapidly and it’s important for us to grasp and take advantage of the market opportunity today while we have a clearly differentiated product. ”