Molecular biologist Caren Helbing and biomedical engineer Stephanie Willerth, both of the University of Victoria, earned B.C. Ignite Awards grants this week to bring their respective projects closer to a commercialized project. Jarusha Brown Photography

3D printer will use ‘bioink’ to create brain tissue

Futuristic UVic projects about to hit commerical market

It’s hard to track an animal you can’t see, which is why a new technology that can test water and soil samples for discarded DNA has been met with great excitement.

University of Victoria molecular biologist Caren Helbing, a professor and Saanich resident of 20 years, was granted $185,000 from B.C. Innovation Council’s annual Ignite Awards towards the commercialization of a tool to that could test for “environmental DNA” (eDNA).

Helbing is one of two UVic researchers to win an Ignite Award, as UVic biomedical engineer Stephanie Willerth won $139,700 towards a 3D print technology that uses “bioink” to create a human neural tissue for the brain.

To have UVic researchers win two of the four Ignite awards is significant, said Helbing, whose DNA testing project is in partnership with environmental consulting firm Hemmera Envirochem and environmental laboratory Maxxam Analytics.

“The way our test works is, basically, all organisms that are alive will slough off their [dead] cells into the environment and those cells contain DNA,” Helbing said. “With this [technology], you can go to the site where you think the animal lives and simply take a sample of water from a pond or stream, or of soil, and we can isolate DNA from that sample and determine what organism it came from.”

Maxxam Analytics will produce the eDNA tester, a first of its kind. It’s expected to expedite the work of researchers tracking threatened and endangered species, and also save them time and money. It could eventually be applied to plants, too, Helbing said. Ideally, the analysis could be completed as fast as one day.

“It’s not unlike going on a safari, chasing a glimpse of a lion for two days without finding one,” Helbing said. “This way, you don’t have to stick around until you see it.”

Helbing’s and Willerth’s respective projects are known as transformative innovation, bringing cutting-edge concepts into a commercialized product on the open market.

For Willerth, the newest grant is another stepping stone towards the creation of ‘bioink’ as a consumable product for 3D printers. The UVic-based biomedical engineering team of graduate and undergrad students are in a collaborative partnership is with Aspect Biosystems in Vancouver. Aspect’s 3D printer reengineers the human skin cells, or bioink, into pluripotent stem cells for the brain.

“With the 3D printing, normally you [use] plastic polymers but we would use bioink,” Willerth said. “The goal is getting [bioink] to the market in 12 to 18 months.”

Bioink, which is derived from humans, is a liquid solution that solidifies when you’re printing the tissues, Willerth said.

The tissues themselves can be patented and licensed.

Willerth is the Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Engineering and recently won a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Discovery grant worth $120,000 over five years to support her work with stem cells.

The return of the fall semester has been a rewarding time for UVic researchers with two more projects were awarded grants from the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

UVic Earth and Ocean Sciences professor Jody Klymak and West Coast Wave Initiative Director Brad Buckham, a UVic mechanical engineer, were awarded $3.8 million toward a $9.5 million project to build a robotic ocean-observing platform in B.C. coastal waters. The platform will one day provide invaluable data on weather, climate change, fish populations and clean-energy solutions such as wave energy through a better understanding of the dramatic changes occurring in the Northeast Pacific Ocean.

The observing platform will quickly become an invaluable resource as the world’s oceans are becoming warmer, more acidic and are losing oxygen.

Another UVic initative, Ocean Networks Canada, was awarded $2.4 million toward a $6.1 million project to build an observatory in the Northern Cascadia subduction zone that aims to provide critical information on seismic and tsunami risks in BC.

reporter@saanichnews.com

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