Interview: Kim Homan, Kidney Tissue Engineering

Kimberly Homan, Ph.D. just moved from being a Research Associate at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard to a position in a stealth-mode startup company. She started her scientific career at the University of Arizona where she earned a chemical engineering degree. She then took a break from science and was commissioned a logistics officer in the United States Marine Corps where she served for 6 years. After her service, she attended the University of Texas at Austin where she earned a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. While in Austin, Texas she started a company based on the biomedical imaging contrast agents she developed in her graduate work. Her company, NanoHybrids Inc, is still based in Austin and has brought several lines of unique gold nanoparticles to market. Kimberly then applied her biomedical engineering expertise to tissue engineering and worked for the last 6 years to use 3D bioprinting to create functional living tissues. In the laboratory of Jennifer Lewis at Harvard University in Wyss and in collaboration with Annie Moisan at Roche, she built kidney tissue on perfusable chips that can be used for drug screening, mechanistic safety, and ultimately, regenerative medicine. She will be a speaker at our upcoming annual summer event in Boston.

Jenny: When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing? What was that experience like? What were you thinking at that moment?

Kim: My experience with 3DP started in the laboratory of Jennifer Lewis at Harvard 6+ years ago. Since I was hired to help start her bioprinting team, the moment was filled with excitement and untapped potential.

Jenny: What inspired you to start your journey in bio-fabrication/bio-printing?

Kim: I am inspired by the versatility of 3DP and its potential to bring about innovative solutions in regenerative medicine.

Jenny: Who inspired you the most along this journey ?

Kim: I dedicated my time in this field to using 3DP to enhance kidney tissue engineering. Aside from the many incredibly bright and capable colleagues in the Lewis lab from whom I draw relentless motivation, I have been inspired by two other important people. The first is Stan Lindenfeld, M.D. – he was the CMO at US Renal, the third largest dialysis company in the US. He contacted us after an article was published about our lab in The New Yorker. Stan conveyed that true innovation in solutions for patients with kidney failure hasn’t happened in over 60 years. He read about our approaches to generate new tissue with 3DP and became excited by this fresh approach with the potential to push the field forward. Over the next few years, he provided mentorship on the state of renal medicine, the patient need, stakeholders interests, and funding that truly elevated and motivated our efforts. The second person is Dr. Annie Moisan at Roche Pharmaceuticals. Jennifer met Annie at a Keystone conference and short exchanges of ideas turned into a 5+ year ongoing collaboration between Harvard and Roche resulting in printed kidney models capable of recapitulating human responses. Her energy for pushing the boundaries with exciting research and marrying it with important insights from drug-makers at Roche was key to our joint success. It is not good enough just to print something – at the end of the day, what is it good for? Annie and Stan helped drive the latter.

Jenny: What motivates you the most for your work?

Kim: Potential impact to patients. Period.

Jenny: What is/are the biggest obstacle(s) in your line of work? If you have conquered them, what were your solutions?

Kim: 3D bioprinting is expensive, so the cost can be an obstacle. After mastering that, there are still some science “miracles” that need to happen before complex bioprinted tissues can be implanted. Printing a large tissue cell by cell will never produce a functioning organ – it takes too long, and in some cases, many specialized cell types are needed that are difficult to derive or isolate. Thus, we started working with stem cell-derived organoid tissue to capture the multitude of cell types and used 3DP to provide the architecture and large vascular conduits requisite for a growing tissue. Challenges that the field must still tackle include ensuring complete differentiation of stem cell-derived organoids, enabling printed and stem cell-derived vascular networks to integrate, and finally creating printed tissue that is not rejected by the patient.

Jenny: What do you think is (are) the biggest challenge(s) in 3D Printing/bio-printing? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?

Kim: Overhyping! 3D printing is an enabling technology, but at the end of the day it is just one tool to help drive medicine forward. Breakthroughs will come through use of 3DP alongside other important advances in imaging and stem cell biology.

Jenny: If you are granted three wishes by a higher being, what would they be?

Kim: The ability to fly, the ability to know what is happening in my own body (down to a molecular level), more wishes.

Jenny: What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advices you heard should they ignore?

Kim: Bad advice: follow your passion – it assumes are you born with some innate passion that you just need to find. Instead, develop a passion – try many things and let your progress drive you towards growing a passion (there is an excellent podcast from Adam Grant on this topic).

Jenny: If you could have a giant billboard to promote a message to millions and even billions of people in our community (i.e. healthcare 3D printing and bio-fabrication), what message would that be?

Kim: Make tissues that FUNCTION!

Jenny: What were/was the best investment you made in 3D printing/bio-printing/bio-fabrication?

Kim: Teaching others to enjoy the art and pushing it to new bio-functioning heights.

Jenny: What were/was the worst investment you made in 3D printing/bio-printing/bio-fabrication?

Kim: Using 3DP to make scaffolds that could have been built with micromolding techniques. Don’t waste time on this – use 3D printing when that is really the best tool for the job.

Jenny: What was/is the biggest risk you took in your career?

Kim: Founding a startup company.

Jenny: What do you enjoy in your spare time? What are you passionate about outside of your work/3d printing?

Kim: Hiking with my kids. Everything has a habitat and nature is ours – I’ve never met an unhappy hiker.

Jenny: What is your favorite quote?

Kim: “Be the change you want to see in the world” -Gandhi

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