PERTH, Australia – Startup Inventia Life Science Pty. Ltd. has received two major investments from the Australian government to accelerate the development of a robotic device that prints a patient’s own skin cells directly onto a burn or wound.
The Sydney-based company has been operating in stealth mode as it has built up an impressive team that includes renowned skin surgeon and former Australian of the Year, Fiona Wood, who co-invented Avita Medical’s Recell spray-on-skin device that was first used in 2002 to heal burn victims of the Bali terrorist attack.
Named Ligō from the Latin “to bind,” the device could revolutionize the way surgeons approach wound repair. The Ligō robot prints tiny droplets containing the patient’s skin cells and biomaterials to speed up the regenerative process and create a new layer of skin where it has been damaged.
Health Minister Greg Hunt announced that the government’s Biomedtech Horizons program, operated by MTPConnect, will inject AU$1 million (US$718,431) in funding to take the device into first-in-human trials within two years.
Separately, the team also received funding from the Medical Research Future Fund – Stem Cell Therapies Mission to collaborate with stem cell expert Pritinder Kaur from Curtin University in Perth to use the Ligō device to deliver stem cell-based products that could improve skin regeneration.
“The combination of these grants is an excellent example of the way the Medical Research Future Fund is being applied across the continuum of translational research to commercialization, leading to better patient outcomes,” Wood said.
Established in Sydney in 2013, Inventia is a privately owned company whose bioprinting technology originally was designed to build 3D cell structures to test different cancer therapies.
Most companies involved in 3D printing use extrusion printing technology, where they mix the gel and cells inside a syringe and squeeze it onto the wound, almost like toothpaste, Inventia CEO Julio Ribeiro told BioWorld. “That’s a very simple method for hyperbolic printing tissue engineering.”
Inventia’s technology works by taking cells from a patient that are cultivated and multiplied to produce “bio inks” that are placed in an inkjet-like cartridge that prints tiny droplets onto the culture plate that are built up in layers to produce 3D cell culture models.
“Nobody has done anything like this,” Ribeiro said.
When he started the company, Ribeiro was introduced to Aidan O’Mahony, who was driving the development of the fastest inkjet printing in the world in Sydney, and the two began working together to develop the biomaterials.
“That process enabled us to merge the inkjet printer technology with the biology and the pure science that allowed us to leap ahead,” Ribeiro said.
3D cell culture models for drug development
The group first focused on building 3D cell culture models that would provide better outcomes for drug development than the single layer of cells grown on multiplex plates today, the CEO said.
“If I’m trying to see if a drug is efficient in treating cancer, and I’m growing cells in a single layer on a flat surface, and I expose the cells to the drug, it would likely expose all the cells,” he said. “But if I’m looking at cells in a 3D model bundled in an extracellular matrix, the cells outside of that bundle would be exposed first, and the cells inside that bundle would be protected. That is like what happens in the human body. That single layer does not represent what happens in the patient’s body.”
With better 3D models, drugs can fail much earlier, cutting development costs, and they also have the potential to replace at least some animal models.
When Ribeiro created the company, the first project was to build these 3D cell cultures for the research market, while the group worked on tissue engineering for transplant purposes. After working with Wood, they realized the technology could be adapted, and they developed the Ligō to take the cells straight to the patient.
Currently, physicians use spray-on cells that are more like a bandage. The new device is an improvement on that because it covers the wound and keeps the cells in place with an extracellular matrix component that offers improved outcomes in terms of scarring and infection.
The technology within Ligō enables the rapid and precise delivery of multiple cell types and advanced biomaterials to a wound, providing the potential to recreate functional and aesthetically normal skin. This can be achieved in a single procedure, reducing treatment cost and hospital stays and minimizing the risk of infection.
“The sky is the limit for us in terms of other applications. We have grown heart cells, liver cells, lung cells, so building these models for different cell types is limitless,” Ribeiro said.
Inventia received government funding in 2011 that helped finance the company until 2017, when it received AU$1.6 million in seed funding from Blackbird Ventures. That allowed the company to produce the first prototype, which it called the Frankenstein. The company received another innovation grant in 2018, and Blackbird Ventures led an AU$10 million series A round in 2017.
“When we started Inventia Life Science, our vision was to create a technology platform with the potential to bring enormous benefit to human health. We are pleased to see how fast that vision is progressing alongside our fantastic collaborators. This federal government support will definitely help us accelerate even faster,” Ribeiro said.
Inventia expects to bring the device into the clinic by 2022 with a small clinical trial in acute burns.
“Bioprinting is one of those technologies that had very high expectations,” said Chief Operating Officer Cameron Ferris. “We consider ourselves realists and are focusing on the value that we can bring to market. We’ve done that with Rastrum developing 3D models for drug development and the skin models to create better models.”
“We’re very quiet,” Ribeiro added. “We didn’t want to talk to anyone about anything yet because we’re not into hype. We are very grounded in the reality of science, and we chose the best technology. I’m very proud of the team we built.”
The team is now looking to expand to the U.S. and Europe and is looking for global partners, he said.