From bioprinting a heart valve to isolating new treatments for diabetes, some of the most amazing and revolutionary medical research is going on right here in our own backyard. Here we look at three of the most exciting projects and how they’re going to change our lives for the better.

The research: 3D bioprinting human organs
Where: The Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, Perth, Western Australia
Research team: Dr Barry Doyle (pictured above, left) and team

Thanks to a revolutionary new bioengineering program, we may one day see human organs printed on demand and then transplanted into sick patients needing organ transplants.

Dr Barry Doyle, head of the vascular engineering laboratory at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research says it’s still early days, yet he is hopeful that the new biomedical research facility that brings experts from many different disciplines together will help speed up the process to breakthroughs.

“What’s possible at the moment around the world is that scientists can print crude structures with cells in them and keep that alive for a matter of weeks afterwards. To go from transplanting that into a human needs a lot more work, but one day hopefully we should be able to print all the major organs in the body such as the kidneys and liver,” he says.

What’s involved?
At the moment Doyle’s team is focused on bioprinting a heart valve and keeping it alive long enough to implant it into an animal. A heart valve has been successfully printed before in the US, but researchers weren’t able to keep it alive long enough to implant it into a live host to see if it works.

Doyle plans to reach this stage in the next couple of years, a goal he says would be a huge step forward towards the ultimate goal of producing other organs. “The heart valve is quite a complicated geometry but if we can create one and implant it into an animal, we’ll have a good shot at being able to extend on sections of the aorta and build towards the heart,” he says.

Bioprinting organs that have been specifically printed from a recipient’s own cells could potentially replace the need for donor organs, not to mention the lengthy waiting times for suitable donor organs to be found.

Since bioprinting involves using a patient’s own cells, it becomes less likely that the organ will be rejected by the body as well. Donor organ rejection is currently a major problem in transplant recipients after surgery with recipients required to take anti-rejection medications on an ongoing basis.

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A visual concept of bioprinting (Image: Shutterstock)

How do you bioprint an organ?
The technology that will make all this possible is called a 3D bioprinter. A 3D bioprinter works by depositing layers of material on a flat surface. First, living cells are taken from a patient, cultured in the lab and mixed into a soft gel-like substance called a hydrogel, which is then put into a 3D bioprinter. Another stiffer material is added to the printer and two nozzles move back and forth depositing these substances to build up the structure of an organ, layer upon layer.

“The printing process is quite easy to carry out, but it’s keeping the printed structures alive after printing that’s where the big challenge lies,” says Doyle.

To overcome this hurdle, Doyle’s team needs to perform tests to better understand the mechanical properties of the substances they’re using. “You can make different blends of these materials and each blend changes the material properties slightly, so one of the challenges is really understanding the hydrogel that we’re working with,” he says.

It’s a huge task but one that Doyle’s team is well qualified for. His team has already developed another promising technology called patient-specific modelling that will one day help cardiovascular specialists and surgeons better predict and personalise patient care.

For example, by making 3D computer models of the heart or aorta from the images taken by heart surgeons, his team can simulate the way blood will flow out of a patient’s heart and down through the vessels using computers. With this information surgeons can better determine whether a patient will need an operation, what type of operation, and even where to operate.

“Only one in ten aortic aneurysms rupture but a huge number of operations are performed each year that are probably unnecessary. But using these computer models we can very specifically predict if operations are even needed,” Doyle says.

The research: Fighting cancer with nanotechnology
Where: University of Sydney Nanotechnology Hub, Sydney
Research team: Professor Zdenka Kuncic and team

At the University of Sydney Professor Zdenka Kuncic, director of the Australian Institute of Nanoscience and Technology (AINST) and her team are working on ways to detect and destroy tumour cells from cancers spreading around the body, known as metastasised tumour cells.

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Professor Zdenka Kuncic and her team's research hopes to find a cure for cancer (Image: University of Sydney)

This is a real problem in medicine because there are currently no imaging techniques that can detect metastasised tumour cells and no techniques that can specifically target and kill them. But using nanotechnologies like the ones being developed by Kuncic and her team, we might one day be able to detect them and even deliver drugs and therapeutic agents to destroy them. But what is nanotechnology and how does it work? 

Nanotechnology is a branch of science that uses tiny particles called nanoparticles. These particles are no bigger than the size of a single molecule of glucose. In fact, you can only see them with an electron microscope. They can be made of different substances and can even be changed and ‘programmed’ to carry out specific tasks.

One of the most exciting applications for nanotechnology is in medicine because nanoparticles have different physical properties than normal sized objects. All of the biochemical processes that happen in our bodies every day occur because of nanoscience and by understanding the properties of nanoparticles, researchers can develop nanotechnologies that work in a non-invasive way in the body.

Nanoparticles can move around the body using the body’s own systems and can be made virtually invisible to the body’s immune system.

Professor Kuncic and her team are already quite advanced in programming (functionalising) nanoparticles to perform certain tasks. That’s when a nanoparticle is coated in a certain type of chemical coating or when it has an antibody or other small molecule attached to it to carry out a certain job in the body. But now her biggest challenge is trying to figure out how to control those nanoparticles once they go into the body. “It’s one thing to see the nanoparticles work in a lab in a petri dish, it’s another thing to actually make them work in a living person,” she says.

To unlock the secrets to controlling nanoparticles, Kuncic says there is an enormous amount of testing still to be done. However she is hopeful for future breakthroughs. “There are a number of nanotechnology strategies that have passed through clinical trials already and they’re being used right now,” she says.

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At the Sydney Nanoscience Hub researchers are trying to unlock the secrets to controlling nanoparticles (Image: University of Sydney)

What will nanotechnology do for us?
If Professor Kuncic and other researchers in this field succeed, treating cancer might one day be simply a matter of ingesting a pill or having an injection at the oncologists’ and letting the nanoparticles inside find and destroy the disease.

But the potential benefit of this technology is not just in fighting cancer. Nanotechnology has far-reaching applications in medicine, according to Kuncic. It may one day also be used by GPs to detect if patients have taken their medicine, and even as a way to detect and treat diseases before they have surfaced. “The holy grail would be to detect the signs of disease in people and be able to nip it in the bud before it starts to become a problem and that’s more than a decade away,” says Kuncic.

The research: Finding out how exercise protects against diabetes and other diseases
Where: The Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney NSW
Research team: Professor Mark Febbraio and team

You’ve probably heard before that exercise can help protect you against a whole lot of diseases, but what you might not know is exactly how this happens.

One way exercise helps protect you is that your muscles secrete protective substances while you’re exercising. These substances are called ‘myokines,’ and by identifying these molecular links, scientists can better develop ways to treat these diseases.

This is the crux of Professor Mark Febbraio’s research as the division head of diabetes and metabolism and head of cellular and molecular metabolism at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research.

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Febbraio says that lifestyle interventions like exercising and watching your diet are still the best way to prevent type 2 diabetes

One area of his research is finding a molecular link for type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is a progressive condition, and although it can be initially managed through lifestyle changes, around one-in-two people will eventually need insulin. 

According to Febbraio, in healthy people, myokines can help protect you against diabetes by activating special kinds of fat cells in your body. Unlike white fat cells, brown fat cells chew up a lot of energy when they’re activated. Myokines turn white fat cells into brown fat cells – which may assist in counteracting the metabolic processes that leads to obesity and or diabetes.

How far along is this research now?
At the moment Febbraio and his team have evidence that myokines can help protect us from disease, but they’re not quite sure exactly which substances do what, and that’s what they’re trying to work out, but not just for diabetes. They’re also trying to identify the molecular links in a range of other diseases too, such as in obesity, Alzheimer’s disease and some types of cancers.

“By identifying the substances that have the most protective effects (the molecular links between exercise and this protective effect) we can then use medicinal chemistry and the pharmaceutical industry to come up with drugs that doctors can use to provide more personalised treatment options for people with these diseases,” says Febbraio.

How do we find myokines?
Finding these substances is not easy. Febbraio and his team use what’s called proteomic and genomic techniques to screen for them. Once substances have been found, they then use bioinformatics – basically complex mathematics and statistics and mice models to help them determine which of the substances are the most important.

One promising protective muscle substance recently discovered by his lab is a substance that helps protect women against breast cancer. If further trials in mice and humans prove successful, this could prove a huge step forward in breast cancer treatment.

While finding the molecular links will almost certainly result in better pharmaceutical treatments, Febbraio recommends being physically active as a tried and true way to prevent disease.

“In 80 per cent of [type 2] diabetes cases, if there was no obesity in those patients they would not have the disease. So lifestyle interventions like exercising and watching your diet is still the best way to prevent diabetes,” he says.

What would you like medical researchers to investigate and why? Let us know in the comments section below.

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