Stuart Williams, PhD, came from a family entrenched in medical science and technology. His father was a chemist and he became a vascular biologist, with a PhD in biology and chemistry. He got his first incentive to go into medical grafts when his father needed a bypass graft and he saw that what the medical world was using in this area was either some type of plastic or metal. That got him interested in finding out what it would take to create hybrid devices that were both standard materials but integrated with actual living cells so they would integrate better into the human body and work longer and better.
“I did my PhD at the University of Delaware, and my postdoctoral studies in cardio-vascular pathology at the Yale School of Medicine. Then I went to Philadelphia and went to Jefferson Medical College. That’s where, with colleagues, we started putting devices together where cells were a big part of those devices. We worked on vascular grafts and we are still working on these devices,” said Williams.
Along the way, he got involved with multiple facets, balancing his life between Federal grants from NIH/NSF and the Department of Defense and working with companies, helping to develop new technologies, including surface modification.
Advancing Into Bioprinting
Bioprinting started after Williams moved from Jefferson Medical College where he was taking cells and fat and determining ways of using these regenerative cells in clinical applications, to the University of Arizona. There, he was introduced to a process known as “additive manufacturing.”
Additive manufacturing is a way of creating devices using layer-by-layer construction. At the University of Arizona biomaterials department, Williams had an appointment in material sciences where a number of people were working on additive manufacturing. “They still had never thought about extruding actual cells to use in this, however,” said Williams.
Then fate stepped in and he got a call from someone in DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). They wanted to put a team together to build an instrument that would print human tissue in the additive manufacturing picture.
“I told them I was already working on this, so it sounded like a perfect fit. That was my introduction to true bioprinting. I have maintained that interest ever since then.” The first project was to print a lymph node, using a three-dimensional printer.
When he heard that the University of Louisville was working on an artificial heart to really attack cardiovascular disease with a more biological approach, it fit in very well with his work. He joined the university and the first thing he discovered was that they needed a better robotic system to print all these tissues.
“We formed a relationship with a company, Advanced Solutions Inc. run by Michael Golway. He and I, and my longtime collaborator, Jay Huling put a plan together to build what we believe is the ultimate robot to print human-tissue equivalent, including eventually being able to print a bioficial heart, a totally functioning heart from a patient’s own cells.”
They built the robot. It’s computer driven and, according to Williams, it has some of the best software to take medical images such as MRIs, CTs, and ultrasound, put them into the computer and then instruct the printer, which is actually an assembly robot, to begin to print out all types of different organ and tissue structures.