Cellink growing organs in the heart of Blacksburg

By Jacob Demmitt jacob.demmitt@roanoke.com | Apr 14, 2019

BLACKSBURG — A lab inside the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center turned green under the lights of one of Cellink’s 3-D printers on a recent afternoon, a signal that the company’s latest nose was ready to show off.

The somewhat eerie-looking nostril print is a go-to demonstration for visitors.

The three-year-old company, run by Virginia Tech alum Erik Gatenholm out of a headquarters in Sweden and smaller offices in Blacksburg and Japan, has come a long way and is growing quickly as it stands on the cusp of a new industry for printing living tissues.

Cellink employed 33 people in 2017, 83 by the end of 2018 and more than 100 today. According to publicly reported financial records, revenue last quarter approached $3 million, up from $1.3 million the year prior.

In Blacksburg, the team has grown from one person to 10.

The company now has a full line of printers with varying degrees of resolution, depending on the precision required for each application.

The company’s machines are in labs at almost every Ivy League university.

And scientists at Tufts University and the University of Pavia are using the printers to mimic human bone marrow.

At Newcastle University in England, they’re printing corneas.

The technology has been around for more than a decade but is becoming increasingly common as scientists and startups around the world, including Cellink, continue to develop new techniques and uses.

They hope it will someday be a routine treatment option for patients, extending lives and alleviating backlogs for donor organs. But for now, bioprinting is mostly reserved for laboratories and experimental treatments.

Cellink engineer Marissa Radosevic, donning a white lab coat with “the future of medicine is here” scrawled across the back, pulled the nose out of the printer on a petri dish during a recent visit. She explained just how the company’s technology allows scientists to print live cells.

 

Someday Cellink hopes to progress the technology far enough to to create replacement organs for transplant in humans. But for now, the printer does a better job of creating simulated tissue samples for drug or cosmetics testing.

Scientists mix their live cells into the company’s Bioink, a kind of gel designed to allow cells to survive and multiply. The ink is loaded into a 3-D printer, which forms the desired shape layer by layer as the gel solidifies.

By the time the lights inside Cellink’s box turn green, researchers have an object that acts like human tissue. They can then apply their drug and see how the living cells inside respond.

Other companies are working on developing the technology, but Cellink has focused its attention on making less expensive printers that are more accessible to researchers on a budget. The latest model, Radosevic said, can cost up to $40,000.

The Blacksburg outpost isn’t large, but Radosevic said Cellink has a special connection to both the VTCRC and Virginia Tech.

The company has some lab space in Blacksburg, as well as a small office space crammed with large monitors for the hardware and software development team.

The company has big ambitions to reshape the future of medicine. And at least some of that is going to happen in Southwest Virginia.

“We want to keep expanding this office and bringing people in,” Radosevic said of Blacksburg. “We want to create more jobs in the biotech industry here and really build a bioprinting community. And that really starts at home.”

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