The third annual Health Hack Competition is fast approaching, and what better time to showcase the excellent research and innovation in the community? We’re excited to launch today “Tech Spotlight”, an interview series that highlights emerging technologies, the individuals that use it and their stories, as well as the technology’s applications to healthcare.
Please meet our first interviewee: Breanna Borys
Breanna is a 4th year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Engineering Graduate Program at the University of Calgary, under the supervision of Dr. Michael Kallos at the Pharmaceutical Production Research Facility (PPRF). Her research involves using bioreactors and leveraging computational fluid dynamic modelling to scale up the production of human-induced pluripotent stem cells. Read on to learn more about Breanna’s story and her outlook for the industry. Want to learn more about technology in healthcare? Check out Tech Tent on October 9! Have technology that you want to showcase? Let us know and become an exhibitor at Tech Tent. Breanna poses next to a cell encapsulation machine in the lab
Key tech terms: bioreactor, human-induced pluripotent stem cells, computational fluid dynamic modelling, bioprocess engineering
I4H: Let’s start with the basics. How does your technology work? BB: So the main technology our lab works with is called bioreactors. A bioreactor is a stirred-tank vessel, that would be the same as any chemical engineering reactor. It rotates, either by a magnetic stir bar, or a gear-driven box on top. And the whole idea is it’s making this well mixed-in environment. Within the well-mixed environment we can add, or take out, different supplements; like media, and we can control different things like oxygen input, carbon dioxide input, maybe base additions so we can control pH, things like that.
PPRF lab members pose for a photo with their bioreactors. From left: Breanna Borys, Tiffany Dang, Tania So, Alexis Pawluk, Sanchit Chopra, Brett Abraham. Brett and Tania are recent graduates of the Chemical Engineering program at UofC (BME Specialization), and Tiffany, Alexis, and Sanchit, are undergraduates in the program.
I4H: What were some major advancements that gave way to where the field is today? BB: Major advancements largely came from the biology side. So, this lab is called the Pharmaceutical Production Research Facility, which gives you a hint about what we used to do. Before my time, the lab focussed its work in the pharmaceutical area of protein and antibody production. But now, this big wave of stem cell therapies is evolving. So this encapsulates everything from the recent discovery in 2006 of how human-induced pluripotent stem cells can be made, to different kind of stem cell products. Members of our lab work with exosomes (which used to be thought of as cell garbage), which now we realize to therapeutic potential, to other cell products like oncolytic viruses. The whole point of our lab is to take stem cells and cell discoveries and make tools and protocols to scale them up in a reproducible manner to bring them closer to either market, or clinical trials.
I4H: Where does your specific research project fit in to the lab’s mission and to the field overall? BB: All of my particular work is with pluripotent stem cells. So pluripotent, “pluri” meaning many, these are cells that can turn into any other cell in the adult human body. I work with traditional pluripotent stem cells (embryonic stem cells) and I also work with human-induced pluripotent stem cells. Human-induced pluripotent stem cells are adult stem cells that we have essentially tricked into thinking they’re embryonic stem cells. This takes away the ethical issues, and the risk of rejection issues that come with embryonic stem cells. My thesis is everything to do with them, their scale up, and their quantification. The lab fits into the field at the translation stage, taking practices and protocols from the laboratory and bench scale, into the clinical trial scale.
I4H: What have been some major findings in your research so far -- things that surprised you, or good results?
BB: I would have to say, that in comparison to current publications, we have really designed a better process for the expansion of human-induced pluripotent stem cells in stirred suspension culture. When we compare our methods to anything published, either by academic or industry, we’ve developed a much more successful process. And a lot of that is not only because we’ve linked our biological experiments to an understanding of bioreactor forces using something called computational fluid dynamic modelling. This is where my chemical engineering background really comes in, as we model and design different reactors, and we use those modelling parameters to choose what kind of bioreactor we should use, and what kind of operating conditions we should use it under. This has given us an advantage in designing these protocols which others don’t have right now.
I4H: How did you get into this field?
BB: So my journey started in knowing that I wanted to help in the medical field, but knowing that being a doctor wasn’t necessarily right for me. The engineering path was more right for me: I wanted to solve problems, I didn’t want to have a memorization-based field and was strong in math. So I took engineering as a way to get into the biomedical field. When I started I thought I wanted to be a mechanical engineer, and work in the prosthetics space (which I still think is really cool!), but I quickly found out I was not good at mechanical engineering. I was in fact much better at chemical engineering and heard about in my first years how you could use chemical engineering in the biomedical space, and thought that was the right choice for me. After my second year of engineering I started doing Summer research terms, much like the summer students in our lab, and I fell in love with it very quickly and knew that this was the place for me to go.
I4H: How does your work fit into your career plan?
BB: Essentially, I would become what’s known as a “bioprocess engineer”. So process engineering and chemical engineering can be thought of as the same thing, at least the way that the University of Calgary does it, and then I’m working with a bio-product. Bioprocess engineering is really growing right now, especially in countries like the U.S., where they actually sell products or are going into market. We’ve reached this pinacle of stem cells and stem cell therapies, where a lot of things are working at the benchtop scale, and now they want to move them into clinical trials and the market. But the only way to do that is to have a bioprocess engineer design the scale-up protocols. The protocols need to produce a high quality product, be economic, and fall into what we call a “GMP” (Good Manufacturing Product) qualification. I hope to work in this industry, at least for a while, and potentially come back to academics later.
I4H: Once we have these GMPs widely available, how do you think this will affect people’s everyday interactions with the clinic?
BB: It’s going to depend a lot on what country you live in. The process for getting stem cell treatments into everyday use varies a lot between countries, because of how the healthcare system works. The overall goal is to get these therapies approved, that can go into our everyday healthcare system. There is one approved stem cell therapy, and that’s hematopoietic stem cells for the treatment of blood diseases. The goal is to get more of our therapies to that level. What I can say is that many of the others are very close, but in Canada, that is the only one approved right now.
We talk a lot about things like stem cell tourism, and we always say, “Don’t do that! You can go and buy stem cells.” But they’re not actually in the Canadian healthcare system right now, and the reason is that we haven’t worked out all the details. We haven’t made sure it’s really going to work and going to work for everyone. Once we do it will be worked into the system.
I4H: You talked about approved hematopoietic stem cell therapies. Which do you think is the next “ball to drop” so to speak?
BB: For stem cells, it’s hard to say. There are currently over 300 clinical trials for what are called ‘mesenchymal’ stem cells. Mesenchymal, implying “middle of the body”, these [stem cell therapies] are aiming to treat joint injuries and repair things like osteoporosis; there’s a lot of work in what we call the “MSC” field. That being said, we also have clinical trials going on right now with human-embryonic, and human-induced embryonic stem cells for diabetes treatment. There’s a big clinical trial going on right now partly in Vancouver using human-embryonic stem cells for islet replacement (ViaCyte).
I4H: Do you have any other predictions for the field over the next 5-10 years?
BB: My hope is that it explodes! So many cell and cell product therapies are right on the brink of clinical trials, and almost at market. Many of them going well, some of them aren’t. Right now we just have this one approved therapy, and within the next few years I really hope more jump into that category, so we can actively and regularly see people using cell and stem cell treatments.