Prellis Biologics raises $1.8M to 3D print human organs

The ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for anyone to be on an organ transplant list

Financial trends and news by Steven Loeb
September 13, 2017
Short URL:

On average, 22 people die every day from the lack of available organs for transplant, and that only includes people who are on waiting lists. One in every seven Americans has kidney disease, and currently $50 billion of Medicare dollars are spent on that issue alone. To say that this is a big problem would be a massive understatement. It's expensive and people are dying as a result. 

Prellis Biologics wants to eliminate the need for organ donor wait lists forever by creating viable human organs using 3D printing.

If that sounds like a pretty exciting use of technology, investors agree. On Wednesday, the company announced a $1.8 million round of seed funding led by True Ventures, with participating from Civilization Ventures and 415 Ventures, along with angel investors. 

The company had previously received an investment from IndieBio, an accelerator for biotech startups run by SOSV, and has now raised $1.92 million.

Using 3D printing to create viable human organs

Founded in October of last year, Prellis uses 3D printing and stem cell development to create tissue and organs with the microvascular systems that are critical for supporting viable human tissue. It does that by printing faster, and at a higher resolution, allowing cells to remain viable. 

"The reason we don't have lab grown human organs and tissue, or really any live grown organs, is because no one has been able to construct microvasculature, the tiny capillaries that are necessary to feed organs and tissue. So, all the lab grown, 3D printed tissue you see, it's about as thick as a piece of paper, and we know that's not going to work to do a full liver, kidney or lung replacement or anything like that," Prellis co-founder and CEO Melanie Matheu told me.

Printing at a slow speed would prohibit the organ from functioning fully due to cell die off. There's the possibility of injecting cells in later, but getting the right cells in the right place, due to the complexity of the organs, is "next to impossible," she said.

Right now, Prellis can print anywhere from 1,000 to 1,000,000 times faster, depending on the size of the organ that is being printed because it is, essentially, printing all at once, rather than in 2D layers. That means that the company can, with its current prototype, print a model of a kidney in 16 to 24 hours. When the optics are scaled to the size that they want, though, they can print one within just an hour or two.

"This is a problem we have solved. We figured out a way to print very, very high resolution structures, in a nontoxic way, at a very fast speed," Matheu said.

Actually printing a functioning kidney is at least a few years off, however, as the technology is still pretty nascent. Prellis is starting smaller, printing islets of langerhans, the unit of the pancreas that produces insulin. The company has just recently printed its first microvasculature structures and is going to test them and make sure that they're fully functional.

"Our first human transplantable will be islets for Type 1 diabetics and those are great because they're small cellular bundles that we can organize with high precision in 3D and that's what's required of an islet to be functional. They don't need to be vascularized, and they don't need to be the size and complexity of something like a kidney. What we can do is mass reproduce these and we can produce enough to transplant these and that's why we believe we can get to clinical trials with this technology so quickly," said Matheu.

"For the larger, more complex organs, we'll need to do some development. We believe we can get to clinical trials for that in four to six years. It's going to be a matter of developing the microvasculature and then layering the cells on top to develop those," noted Noelle Mullin, co-founder and CSO of Prellis.

As for when this type of technology will be widely used in the healthcare system, it all depends on how fast Prellis scales up the islets for transplant. 

"If those work well, our process would be using a patient's own cells, differentiating them into insulin producing cells for diabetics, printing these islets and sending them out for transplantation. We know this transplant procedure works, and as soon as we can prove that it's safe and efficacious, we plan to be providing islets for transplant to as many Type 1 diabetics as possible. So, I'd say about four tears or so from now we expect to be really mainstream and hoping to help people a lot of people with diabetes," said Matheu.

Competition in the organ transplant space

While 3D organ transplants might seem like a space that wouldn't be very crowded, simply due to the fact that the technology is so new, Prellis does have its competitors.

"There are a lot of others groups that are very interested in developing organs in the lab and moving beyond the transplant wait list. We think that our technology is actually quite different. Nobody else is using the printing method that we're doing, which is really key for achieving the resolution and the speed. It's an entirely different way to print," said Mullin.

There are also some that are generating organs more naturally in animals, specifically in pigs, though Mullin cites the "ethical and technical challenges" of this method. 

"We think that our method really is going to be the first method that really allows us to reach the resolution and the speed that will allow for large scale organ engineering."

Prellis plans to use its new funding to expand its four person team to eight to 10 employees by the end of the year, and also to move to a larger lab space. It will also launch the next version of its technology, which will include upgrading its printing system with a higher powered laser system that will allow it to print islets for full transplant within 30 minutes.

With that system in place, the company hopes to go straight into pre-clinical trial work and then into clinical trials.

Getting rid of the transplant waiting list

Creating organs in a lab can finally solve the problems that arise from how inefficient transplant waiting lists currently are.

There are a lot of people who need organ transplants, but most of them are not candidates. The amount of people who have liver, kidney and progressive lung disease, it's over 90 million people in the U.S. alone.

Once people actually do get their transplant, things aren't magically fixed, either. The patients have to spend the rest of their lives on immunosuppressive drugs, or else they risk rejecting that transplant. That then causes all sorts of other problems, including the risk of not being able to fight off common colds, let alone more serious diseases.

By creating organs from a patient's own cells, not only would Prellis be saving people's lives by not requiring them to sit and wait for an organ match, it would also reduce the need for those drugs since the organ would be an identical match. All of this would save the healthcare system a lot of money in the long run. 

"A lot of these people never get organs. They go home, if they're lucky to be on the transplant waitlist they might get one. 22 people a day die on the transplant wait list. Just the availability alone is so low that we would be doing a lot of good by providing these organs. Additionally, because we'd be using a patient's own cells, it would be a perfect match. You can't get better than that," said Matheu.

"We would be saving the healthcare system a tremendous amount of money."

The company doesn't plan to distribute its printers to hospitals, but instead would provide the tissue for transplant, working with transplant surgeons and developing relationships with transplant centers, which help people find an organ match or donor.

"What we would do is step into that same system and provide organs who don't have  match or can't find a donor in time."

Ultimately, Prellis' goal is to "not have anyone wait for an organ ever again, and to completely eliminate the transplant donor wait list and provide an option for people with organ failure," Matheu told me.

"There's this huge problem in that there's not enough organs for replacement for the diseases that people are coming down with. We want to be the source of these organs, and we really think this will change the way that people are treated for these life threatening diseases," said Mullin.

Related companies, investors and entrepreneurs

True Ventures
Angel group/VC
Description: True is a venture firm for early stage entrepreneurs. Founders of high growth companies deserve partners with experience, creativity a...