Cutting-edge tissue regeneration therapies to soon be a reality

An apparatus that allows researchers to conduct tests on newly generated tissues.

The innovations of the Emilio Alarcon lab are no longer the stuff of space-age movies.

By Michelle Read

Printable, on-the-spot heart repair. Tiny vehicles delivering stem cells to organs in need. Silver scaffolds implanted into an eyeball. Scenes from a sci-fi film, or plausible therapy?

The BioEngineering and Therapeutic Solutions lab (BEaTS) at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute is moving medical care into the future by producing such innovations with the potential to save billions of dollars for the health care system.

But more than that, principal investigator Dr. Emilio Alarcon feels an urgency to jump into the future for another important reason – the rapidly growing number of patients in need.

Heart diseases are the number one cause of premature death in Canada, says Dr. Alarcon. Millions of Canadians live with heart disease, he explains, with many going on to develop heart failure.

“The heart is literally failing in such cases, with the number increasing by about 50,000 people each year,” Alarcon says. “Conventional treatments such as drugs or cell therapies save lives, but do not cure failing hearts, which instead need specialized health care.”

Customized heart patches made to order with patient on the table

Materials already exist to repair heart functionality, says Alarcon, but they are not customized to the specific patient. Materials need to flex and conduct electricity in a manner specific to each individual patient’s unique heart.

To this end, the team is developing a heart patch that can be printed on a special printer as a patient lies on the operating table, and applied by the doctor to the patient’s heart.

“Our heart patch will provide a new therapeutic tool for recovering heart function, and save thousands of lives in Canada and millions of dollars in health care costs,” Alarcon explains.

The Alarcon team also develops and implements new materials with regenerative capabilities for tissue regeneration of other organs including muscles, as well as connective and soft tissues. These treatments are expected to help improve the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of Ontarians.

Tiny silver scaffolds engineered to grow human tissue

Among their innovations, the team is building regenerative platforms – imagine tiny scaffolds made of nanoengineered silver – on which new tissues can be grown and accepted by a patient’s body as a treatment for their disease. Such electroconductive nanoengineered materials are of great use in cardiac repair, for example.

Current technologies of growing, mimicking and implanting new tissues has limitations, says the assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology, hence their goal of new methods of tissue regeneration.

The materials being developed by the Alarcon team will have improved mechanical properties such as flexibility, as well as novel antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties for reduced infection and rejection by the body.

The team is also developing microcapsules to surround stem cells as they travel through the patient’s body to the point of injury. In contrast to older versions, these capsules will remain in place as the cells are being delivered, boost the engraftment of the cells, and safely biodegrade when they have completed their mission.

The future is now thanks to robust support and collaboration

The work of the Alarcon lab has received significant funding of late from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Tri-Agency New Frontiers in Research Fund Program, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada, Collaborative Health Research Projects and the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine, allowing the team to push forward in their goals for future clinical use.

Also important in accelerating innovation in health care, says Alarcon, is outreach between scientists within the research community to connect interdisciplinary, outside-the-box thinkers. His new endeavor, BEaTS-R2, will see scientists and early career researchers interview a lineup of scientists and innovators from Canada and worldwide. Launching in the fall and streaming from his lab, it will be the first radio streaming from an actual laboratory.

With pioneering thinkers like Alarcon and team, perhaps the future isn’t quite as far away as we thought.

Dr. Emilio Alarcon posing with the members of his research team.

Dr. Emilio Alarcon (8th from left) poses with the members of his research team. He has travelled the world, he says, to assemble this talented group. From left to right: Antony El-Khoury (NSERC summer fellow), Madison Bak (MSc student), Brook Biniam (Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP)), Ashley Baldwin (lab manager), Dr Veronika Sedlakova (postdoctoral fellow), Justina Pupkaite (PhD student), Sarah Mclaughlin (PhD student), Dr. Christopher McTiernan (postdoctoral fellow), Dr. Erik Suuronen (director, BEaTS), Maxime Comtois-Bona (co-op student), Dr. Marcelo Muñoz (postdoctoral fellow) and Alex Ross (MSc Student). Missing from photo: Dr. Marc Ruel, Zohra Khatoon, Erik Jacques, David Cortes, Michel Grenier, Keshav Goel.


Customized heart patch printer

Using a device invented by the BEaTs lab, in a matter of minutes a doctor can print a patch of replacement tissue and apply it very precisely to the heart to replace damaged, non-functioning tissues. The replacement tissue covers a defined area of damage (for example, due to a heart attack), conducts electricity, and flexes with the heart’s natural rhythms, allowing the heart to return to normal function. In this cutaway of the team’s prototype, we see the inner chambers that store replacement tissue for application to the heart.


Maxime Comtois-Bona demonstrating the patch-printing device on a tiny 3D-printed heart

When the device is pointed at a patient’s heart, a tiny camera on the device allows the doctor to visualize the precise location where the patch is needed. Here, co-op student Maxime Comtois-Bona demonstrates the device on a tiny 3D-printed heart, showing how a doctor is able to view the patient’s heart on a computer screen.


an apparatus that allows researchers to conduct tests on newly generated tissues

The team has also devised an apparatus that allows them to conduct tests on newly generated tissues. Researchers can apply and withdraw vacuum pressure to sheets of tissue, mimicking the body’s own natural flexing of tissues.


Applying electrical signal to the tissue so the team can evaluate how the signal interacts with the flexing motion

Next, by simultaneously applying electrical signal to the tissue, the team can evaluate how the signal interacts with the flexing motion. This helps the researchers engineer tissues that best replicate a patient’s own natural tissues.


Photos: Joanne Steventon


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