Dr. Willerth holds a Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Victoria where she has dual appointments in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Division of Medical Sciences as an Associate Professor.
She serves as the Acting Director for the Centre for Biomedical Research at the University of Victoria and on the steering committee of the B.C. Regenerative Medicine Initiative. She also served as the President of the Canadian Biomaterials Society from 2017-2018. Her honors include being named the 2018 REACH award winner for Excellence in Undergraduate Research-inspired Teaching, a Woman of Innovation in 2017, one of the 2015 Young Innovators in Cellular and Biological Engineering and a “Star in Global Health” by Grand Challenges Canada in 2014. She spent Fall of 2016 on sabbatical at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery supported by the International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries International Travel Award where she wrote her book “Engineering neural tissue using stem cells” published by Academic Press.
She completed her postdoctoral work at the University of California-Berkeley after receiving her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Washington University. Her undergraduate degrees were in Biology and Chemical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Willerth will be speaking at the upcoming virtual 3DHEALS2020.
Jenny: When was it like when you first encountered the concept of 3D printing and bioprinting?
Stephanie: I had been familiar with the concept for a while and it seems like a great way to help make the process of engineering tissues more reproducible. The advances in bioprinting technology made in recent years have expanded the types and complexity of tissues that can be produced, which is an exciting development. Such tissues could be used for both drug screening and regenerative medicine applications.
Jenny: What inspired you to start your journey in bioprinting neurological tissue?
Stephanie: It was a logical progression given my background in neural tissue engineering – I have always been fascinated by stem cells and how they can be used to regenerate damaged tissue. Neural tissue has always been of interest to me due to its complex nature.
Jenny: Who inspired you the most along this journey?
Stephanie: My research group inspires me with their dedication to our 3D bioprinting projects. They have to troubleshoot these new technologies and it requires a true interdisciplinary skillset to ensure we can achieve the proper material properties while maintaining cellular function.
Jenny: What made neuroscience so attractive to you?
Stephanie: The tissue found in the brain and spinal cord contains a wide variety of cell types with unique functions – it is quite interesting to learn more about these properties and how to replicate them using stem cells. Many neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s lack true cures in part due to the lack of accurate tools for drug screening. Bioprinting neural tissues using stem cells derived from patients suffering from these diseases could potentially serve as such a tool.
Jenny: What are you most passionate about right now?
Stephanie: I am most passionate currently about our work bioprinting personalized neural tissues from patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in collaboration with the Nygaard lab at the University of British Columbia. I am also excited about the incorporation of our company – Axolotl Biosciences – that I co-founded with my recent Ph.D. graduate Laura De la Vega. We plan on selling our unique bioinks and other reagents for 3D printing.
Jenny: What are some unique aspects of the University of Victoria/Vancouver that facilitate your work/success/growth?
Stephanie: We have an excellent and expanding regenerative medicine community both on Vancouver Island and on the lower mainland in Vancouver. It is a highly supportive network of both academics and local industry that includes the B.C. Regenerative Medicine Initiative. We also currently have two first of their kind clinical trials using stem cells here in British Columbia as well.
Jenny: What do you think what has not been done enough to advance the field of bio-fabrication?
Stephanie: There is plenty of room to develop more sophisticated bioinks especially for printing stem cells and their derivatives. Printing more complex structures is another area where there is a huge room for advancement when generating replacement tissues.
Jenny: What are your biggest accomplishments in 2019? And any big plans for 2020?
Stephanie: I was very happy that our ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering paper detailing how to 3D printing induced pluripotent stem cell-derived neural tissues that were featured in their virtual Methods article. It was also exciting to publish our work on 3D bioprinted models of glioblastoma in Materials Today Chemistry as that is a relatively new project in our lab. For 2020, I collaborated with Konrad Walus and Simon Beyer from Aspect Biosystem on an invited commentary about challenges when bioprinting brain tissues. There has also been a lot of buzz around our newly launched company – Axolotl Biosciences.
Jenny: What are some of the most notable progress made in the field of 3D bioprinting for neurological disease in 2019? Anything we should hope for 2020?
Stephanie: In addition to work from my group, Michael Mc Alpine’s group has been doing excellent work using 3D printing and bioprinting for a variety of neural tissue engineering applications.
Jenny: How does COVID19 change that plan? How are you adapting to the new norm?
Stephanie: We have been using 3D printing to generate face shields for the local hospitals. I may be re-opening my lab to study the virus as we have the capabilities. The new normal is still quite busy. It would be exciting to study how the COVID19 virus affects neural cells as it has been shown to infect neurons.
Jenny: If you can go back 5 or 10 years, what would you have done differently?
Stephanie: I probably would have told my 29-year-old self to have more confidence when I was on the job market. It was during a recession and most places I interviewed – I was the only woman interviewing and was the youngest candidate.
Jenny: Software, materials, or 3D printers. It has been a debate in the industry forever as to which is the most important player. What do you think is the most important player in healthcare 3D printing?
Stephanie: It would be wonderful to get better software for predicting if a structure will print especially when using expensive bioinks and stem cell derived-cells for engineering tissues. It is all interconnected between the different elements of bioprinting – the bioinks, the printers, and the cells.
Jenny: What motivates you the most for your work?
Stephanie: The idea of being able to help develop drugs for diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s is exciting. My collaborators are amazing and so are the members of my research group – they inspire me even in these difficult times.
Jenny: What is the biggest obstacle before your goal?
Stephanie: It was hard shutting down my research due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jenny: What do you think are the biggest challenges in bio-printing? What do you think the potential solutions are?
Stephanie: As I have mentioned, being able to predict if a structure is printable would be amazing. It will require a dedicated interdisciplinary approach due to the complex nature of bioprinting. Another issue is generating enough cells for printing tissues as they require high cell densities, which can be challenging when working with pluripotent stem cell-derived cells.
Jenny: What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advice do you think they should ignore?
Stephanie: I would suggest getting as much experience as you can both in academic labs as well as in industry to figure out what type of environment they excel in.
Jenny: What was the best investment you made in bio-printing/bio-fabrication?
Stephanie: Being able to be one of the first academic users of the RX1 bioprinter from Aspect Biosystems has been amazing.
Jenny: What was the biggest risk you took in your career?
Stephanie: Deciding to go to graduate school so that I could become a professor as not that many Ph.D.s ends up in tenure track positions.
Jenny: What do you enjoy in your spare time? What are you passionate about outside of your work/3d printing?
Stephanie: I practice yoga and I am an enthusiastic motorsports fan. I also cheer for all sports teams from Kansas City – Go Chiefs!
Jenny: What does the word “3DHEALS” mean to you? =)
Stephanie: It represents a great international network of passionate individuals working to help improve healthcare using 3D printing.