Their goal is to develop technology that can build transplantable human organs and tissues, addressing the organ shortage and helping millions suffering from organ failure or disease.
Two Gauchos behind this groundbreaking concept: Melanie Matheu and Noelle Mullin, co-founders of Prellis Biologics, in San Francisco. Matheu studied biochemistry and molecular biology at UCSB ad Mullin majored in biology. The two friends credit UCSB with the educational foundation they needed to develop novel laser-based 3D printing approaches for human tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
What made you decide to pursue your undergrad degrees at UCSB?
MM: I am a California native and love the outdoors, from surfing to mountain biking, UCSB was the perfect place to pursue high-level academics in the sciences while enjoying the beauty of the mountains and ocean all in one place.
NM: I was really attracted to the program offered by the College of Creative Studies at UCSB. I liked the graduate school approach to classes and it felt like it provided the intimacy of a small university while maintaining the benefits, resources, and research program of a larger institution. This was the exact experience I was looking for as an undergrad. Of course, the natural beauty of UCSB’s campus, and its proximity to the beach and mountains also helped with my decision to attend UCSB!
What did you love best about being a student researcher at UCSB? (Do you have any mentors you would like to mention?)
MM: UCSB provided a wide range of research opportunities, I was able to spend time in laboratories that specialized in protein engineering to inorganic chemistry. I especially enjoyed time in the laboratories of Dr. Herb Wait and Dr. Patrick Daugherty. Dr. Daugherty was especially supportive of my interests in fluorescent protein engineering. In the sciences UCSB offers numerous opportunities for undergraduates to work in real research labs, this experience became invaluable in my academic career as I was able to draw on first-hand experience in multiple fields.
NM: The best part of being an undergraduate researcher at UCSB was having the opportunity to work closely with the faculty members. The mentorship I received was phenomenal. I spent three of my undergraduate years working in Stuart Feinstein’s lab studying the protein dynamics of the microtubule associated protein, Tau. The extended time period I spent in the lab meant I could really dive into projects, and contribute to publications in the lab. I also really benefitted from mentorship from my faculty advisor, Kathy Foltz. Both Dr. Foltz and Dr. Feinstein always made time to advise on both my current science and academics at UCSB as well as my future plans as a scientist. It’s clear that the professors at UCSB really care about their undergrads.
How did you meet?
MM: Noelle and I overlapped at UC San Francisco where she was finishing her doctoral degree and I was pursing postdoctoral research training in the Diabetes Center. Also, Noelle's husband is a long-time family friend of mine so we had natural overlap from friendships to research pursuits. Coincidentally, we were both UCSB graduates.
NM: As Melanie mentioned, we met at UCSF, while I was finishing my PhD and she was working as a postdoctoral fellow. Melanie worked in the Diabetes Center, and I was collaborating with a group in the Diabetes Center, so we had a lot of professional overlap. We also had a personal connection as Melanie grew up with my husband.
What inspired/kick started the research ideas that eventually became PRELLIS BIOLOGICS? (Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of Prellis?)
MM: My research in immunology was based on the imaging of cellular behavior in living tissues. Using a high-resolution, non-toxic laser we were able to watch immune cells fight off bacteria and viruses in real-time. With the recent revolution in 3D printing I started asking the same questions that many other people have, why aren't we able to grow full organs in the lab? The short answer is we need to place single cells at high resolution, very quickly. I realized that if we reverse-engineered our imaging system we could print the same tiny structures we were imaging, in a way that is fast and non-toxic to cells. Noelle, my friend who earned her PhD studying stem cell biology and developmental biology was the perfect co-founder to take our printed cells into the realm of functional organs.
NM: Melanie came up with the idea for Prellis based on her studies using multiphoton lasers for live-cell imaging. At the time, I had been working as a postdoc at Stanford university, studying how cell-cell interactions and cell microenvironment affect gene expression and cell differentiation state in skin development and cancer. When Melanie explained how she could adapt live-cell imaging approaches for the 3D printing of biologic materials at high resolutions, I realized this could be the key to recreating cellular micro-niches required for engineering functional human tissue in a dish. It was clear that this was an exciting idea with a lot of promise, and I was happy to jump on board.
Would you mind sharing details about your product? (And it’s quite alright if you can’t go into specifics - we completely understand!) What inspired the development of the product?
MM: Full human organs are incredibly complex systems so, immediately, we decided to start small. Our proof of concept that we have completed in the last couple of months is the creation of immunologically responsive tissues. From this we can create fully human anti-bodies within a matter of weeks, completely skipping the animal step in development of this important branch of therapeutics. Next, we have our sights set on creating transplantable Islets of Langerhans, and hope to soon be able to offer a transplant therapy that can fully reverse Type I Diabetes. Our ultimate vision is to be able to recreate organs from a patient's own cells, helping the millions of people suffering from organ failure or disease.
Describe your team at Prellis - what is the dynamic/culture fostered at your company?
MM: We have a fast-paced high-energy team where each person wears many hats and no one is afraid to jump-in and help on a project. We have found that there are three essential components to creating a team that can accomplish huge tasks in a short period of time; Clear Communication, Trust, and Inspiration. Each of us is fully inspired by the mission and vision of Prellis Biologics and believe we will soon be able to give people suffering from organ failure their lives back. In our day to day activities we typically all eat lunch together and work at a large shared desk space. And with each major milestone the company reaches, Noelle and I have hosted a team retreat.
What’s next? (Future plans for the company, and as individuals)
MM: Our company will be launching our human responsive immune tissue product line before the end of 2017 while simultaneously beginning a collaborative effort with Holger Russ, PhD at the University of Colorado, Denver to 3D print and mass produce human Islets of Langerhans. We hope to launch our Phase I clinical trials before the end of 2020. As our company grows, I'm looking forward to bringing on and inspiring new team members and building a great team of dedicated scientists and pharma business experts.
What advice would you give your fellow young scientists -- especially prospective/current graduate students at UCSB - who hope to follow your footsteps?
NM: My advice would be to seek out as many collaborations and partnerships as you can during your training as a scientist. Each of these collaborations is a chance to expand your knowledge set, and you never know when one could lead to an exciting career opportunity. There are so many things you can do with a degree in science, don’t limit yourself to one career path.