Organoids are tiny, three-dimensional tissue cultures derived from stem cells. They are crafted to mimic organ functionality and play an essential role in both the development of personalized medicine and the screening for new drugs. However, the use of organoids on the industrial scale has been hampered by the lack of standardization and quality control of stem cell cultures in solid extracellular matrices.
The Laboratory of Stem Cell Bioengineering at EPFL has developed micro-structured hydrogels that act as tiny molds in which stem cells can propagate and differentiate homogeneously. The hydrogels are imprinted with holes only a few micrometers in diameter, creating a series of U-shaped micro-wells. Each well receives about 100 cells, which aggregate and form a colony in about 30 minutes. The cells then grow and differentiate, producing functional organoids some 60 hours later.
The new technology was successfully used in a study at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) that tested drug molecules on colorectal cancer. The diameter, depth and spacing between the micro-wells can be varied, as can the gel’s formulation, making it possible to grow different types and sizes of tissue.
Two of the researchers behind this breakthrough, Nathalie Brandenberg and Sylke Hoehnel, have launched a start-up, SUN bioscience, to market the technology.