TissueLabs in Brazil: “What Could Have Been a Trauma Turned Out to Be a Passion”
By: Christina Huntzinger
TissueLabs is a Brazilian tissue engineering startup, offering biomedical researchers a platform to create living tissues and organs in the lab. The spark of the idea for TissueLabs began in the maternity ward the day that Gabriel Liguori was born. Dr. Liguori was born with a congenital heart defect, and underwent heart surgery at the age of two. The constant hospital visits at such a young age led Dr. Liguori to his interest in medicine, specifically the field of tissue engineering for its innovative and life-saving potential. “What could have been a trauma turned out to be a passion,” Dr. Liguori proudly explains.
After graduating with honors from the medical school at the Universidade de São Paulo, a school ranked by the Global Innovation Index 2019 as one of the top 10 universities in middle-income countries, Liguori completed a Ph.D. in cardiovascular regenerative medicine at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.[i]
Upon returning to Brazil in 2017, Dr. Liguori continued to develop research at the Heart Institute (InCor), a hospital affiliated with the Universidade de São Paulo and the third-largest cardiovascular center in the world. After two years of research, however, Dr. Liguori realized he wanted to start a company to accelerate product development in organ and tissue engineering. In January 2019, together with the engineer Mr. Emerson Moretto, and the medical researcher Mr. Viktor Sinkunas, Dr. Liguori founded TissueLabs to build living tissues for organ replacement and regeneration.
While the vision of TissueLabs is to develop artificial organs for transplant within the next 10 years, the business model of the startup is based on the development and commercialization of technologies for the fields of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Initially, TissueLabs developed a tissue-specific hydrogel based on the extracellular matrix for 3-D cell culture and 3-D bioprinting, called MatriXpec™. This hydrogel allows biomedical researchers to conduct studies in an environment that is truly representative of the tissues they research.
Over time, the startup expanded to other product lines, including a 3-D bioprinter called TissueStart™. True to its name, TissueStart™ offers a user-friendly starting point for biomedical researchers just embarking on the 3-D printing journey. In developing TissueStart™, the team at TissueLabs used their experience with 3-D printing to create a cost-effective device with a small footprint and minimal mechanical calibration for the reproduction of complex biological tissues.
With the onset of the global pandemic in 2020, TissueLabs gained prominence by releasing a product called MatriWell™, specially developed for researchers working with SARS-CoV-2, the virus of COVID-19. The team at TissueLabs noticed that studies of the lung epithelium, which is affected by the COVID-19 disease, are often conducted on platforms that do not accurately mimic the lung tissue. This results in low success rates of pre-clinical and clinical tests, and wastes precious research time for a disease that ravages communities throughout Brazil, Latin America, and the world. The 3-D printed MatriWell™ platform, which was patented, allows the researcher to perform in vitro studies in a bioresin platform with a hydrogel insert that mimics the extracellular matrix of native lung tissue, differently from what happens in conventional Petri dishes.[ii] Once the pandemic subsides, TissueLabs hopes to expand the research use of MatriWell™ to other epithelial tissues.[iii] (The MatriWell™ platform is available at the TissueLabs website, free of charge to researchers working on the COVID-19 virus: www.tissuelabs.com/covid-19.)
Tissue Labs and the Importance of IP
When developing new products, TissueLabs always seeks to assure its technologies are innovative and patentable. As Dr. Liguori explains, “Some of [our] patents relate to product design, others are related to the fabrication methods, but all of them represent something TissueLabs is proud to enforce to the R&D team: innovation.”
The Global Innovation Index 2019 notes Brazil’s strength in human capital and research toward driving innovation, ranking the country 28th in the world in terms of gross expenditure on R&D.[iv] Despite the prevalence of R&D, seeking intellectual property protection has not always been a common practice in Brazil, given the long, bureaucratic process involved in securing patents. Rather, it has sometimes been more common for innovators to secure “informal name recognition” by continuing business operations until potential customers know them by their product or service.
Yet intellectual property protections, including patents and trademarks, provide a foundational pillar for companies in the biotech industry. Because the products developed by biotech companies often depend on years of risky, expensive, painstaking research, patents enable innovators to recoup these investments while minimizing the risk of having an innovator’s investment stolen by a competitor. As Dr. Liguori explains, “[TissueLabs’] products are the result of the effort of several highly qualified researchers and developed with vast financial resources. For this reason, we must be reassured that [the effort and investment] will be worth it.” Intellectual property protections provide TissueLabs that reassurance. TissueLabs joins other Brazilian healthcare innovators in embarking on the process of seeking patent and trademark protection, as they value the benefits of intellectual property for its important benefits for life-sciences innovators.
Brazil began granting patents in the pharmaceutical sector in May 1997, having joined the Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Agreement (TRIPS) by Presidential Decree in December 1994 as part of its accession to the World Trade Organization, with a TRIPS-compliant regime — including both pharmaceutical product and process protection coming into effect on May 14, 1996. As other Innovate4Health case studies have explained, Brazil’s introduction of patent rights for biopharmaceutical innovation in the mid-1990s has since led to a flourishing of innovation in that sector in Brazil.
Further, in 1979 Brazil joined the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), a multilateral treaty that makes it possible to apply for patent protection for an invention, simultaneously, in a large number of countries, by filing a single international patent application. This treaty has grown to include 146 signatory countries. With the PCT, the first phase of the international deposit can be made in Brazil, and then the applicant can go to the patent offices of other nations, involving local attorneys, fees, and translations.
Dr. Liguori notes that the PCT system “is in fact very convenient for Brazilian startups and companies because we can deposit patents for a reduced cost while we are still a small business. After depositing a patent in Brazil, with a PCT request, we gain 30 months to deposit the same patent in the countries which are part of the treaty. This means we gain time to raise capital and [can] be able to pay for the much greater expenses required by the international applications.”
TissueLabs is poised to be a leader in the emerging field of 3D-printed biological material and tissue engineering, especially with the advances the company has made in research platforms for COVID-19. Intellectual property protection affords Dr. Liguori, and his team at TissueLabs, the freedom to innovate and market their lifesaving medical technology around Brazil and the world.
[i] “The Global Innovation Index 2019: Creating Healthy Lives — The Future of Medical Innovation” (Ithaca, Fontainebleau, and Geneva: Cornell University, INSEAD, and WIPO, 2019), xxv, https://www.wipo.int/edocs/pubdocs/en/wipo_pub_gii_2019.pdf.
[ii] Yuri Vasconcelos, “Plataforma Para Estudar Células Do Pulmão,” Revista Pesquisa FAPESP, May 21, 2020, https://revistapesquisa.fapesp.br/plataforma-para-estudar-celulas-do-pulmao/.
[iii] Vanesa Listek, “TissueLabs: New 3D Printed Platform Free to Researchers Studying COVID-19,” 3DPrint.Com | The Voice of 3D Printing, April 30, 2020, https://3dprint.com/266736/tissuelabs-new-3d-printed-platform-free-to-researchers-studying-covid-19/.
[iv] “The Global Innovation Index 2019: Brazil” (Ithaca, Fontainebleau, and Geneva: Cornell University, INSEAD, and WIPO, 2019), 4, https://www.wipo.int/edocs/pubdocs/en/wipo_pub_gii_2019/br.pdf.