The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond.
When former United States Marine Corps Officer and startup founder Kimberly Homan started at the Wyss, members of the lab she joined didn’t dare use the word organ when talking about their experiments. In this Humans of the Wyss, Kim shares advances that have contributed to her exciting journey in kidney tissue engineering and her ultimate goal of 3D printing a functional human kidney.
What are you working on?
I build human kidney tissue in the lab. We’re using a combination of stem cell-derived tissues and 3D printing to create kidney tissue constructs that mimic native kidneys.
What real-world problem does this solve?
There is a huge need for kidneys in the US alone. Eighty-three percent of patients on the organ donor waitlist are waiting for kidneys, and the average waitlist time for an adult is 4-5 years. Medicare spends $42 billion on dialysis each year to treat patients who are waiting for a kidney. That’s 7% of Medicare costs being allocated to just 1% of Medicare patients.
There are a range of short-term and long-term goals for our research that will impact patients in the real world. The short-term goals include using the kidney models in collaboration with pharma partners to perform drug toxicity testing and disease modeling. Being able to determine, in vitro, which drugs are safe, and which are not, allows us to cut down the time and cost from research to clinic. This could reduce animal testing and is also more predictive of human responses. We’re working on a really exciting project with Roche Pharmaceutical that looks at the interaction of immune cells with kidney cells, specifically those of human origin with human antigens.
Next, some of the cells that we’re creating in collaboration with stem cell biologists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital can be used as cellular therapies in the body. These cells have really unique properties that could help regenerate certain functions of the kidney.
The long-term goal is to develop kidney replacement therapies for patients. So if your kidney started failing, we would make you a new kidney out of your own cells so that it would be less likely to be rejected. It is an awe-inspiring goal, but we are still a ways off.
What inspired you to get into bioprinting and 3D organ engineering?
The potential of 3D bioprinting always excited me. Before entering this field, I was doing a lot of work related to biomedical contrast imaging. When I was finishing up my PhD, one of my really close mentees, Ryan Truby, who had joined Jennifer Lewis’ lab as a graduate student asked, “Don’t you want to just come and 3D print organs with us at Harvard?” and, “Hell Yes!” was my immediate response. It’s been a wonderful journey. I’ve actually been a colleague and friend of Ryan’s from the time he was a sophomore undergraduate student, through his PhD in Jennifer’s lab, and to now where he is a Schmidt Science Fellow and postdoc with his own amazing project; his friendship means the world to me.
What continues to motivate you?
Progress. When I first joined the Wyss, we never used to use “the O word” because we didn’t see a path toward true organ building; we didn’t yet see a path from where we were in the 3D printing field, to actually making a replacement organ. But over the past 6 years, we, and the field in general, have made such significant improvements in both 3D bioprinting and stem cell biology that we now see the potential to merge those lanes and develop something that really could function like an organ. This tremendous progress – along with being part of an amazing team – continues to drive me.
What excites you the most about your work?
Each of these experiments takes between 1-2 months before you realize results, so you spend a lot of time feeding cells and tissues and waiting. But, when you actually obtain an amazing scientific result, it’s objectively cool. No matter what else is going on in your life, it will be amazing every time you look at it.
What are some of the challenges that you face?
We’ve solved a lot of the issues that relate to the vascularization of tissues and keeping tissues alive for long periods of time, but there are some significant hurdles we still have to overcome. To describe one example, a lot of the stem cell-derived tissues we use have cells that very much mimic the character of cells in our body, but they’re functionally pretty immature. We haven’t arrived at an adult kidney – not yet. Our main challenge is to figure out how to take the tissue from this immature state to a place where it looks and functions like an adult human kidney.
How has your previous work and personal experiences, such as creating a startup and being in the Marines, shaped your approach to your work today?
My experience founding NanoHybrids has led me to view things through a commercial lens. Yes, we do a lot of basic science here, but at the end of the day I don’t want to just do basic science. I want to make something that is going to help a patient. Questions like: “If we were to take this out commercially, how would we do it? What would it cost? Is it feasible? Does it scale?” are things we actively consider.
The Marine Corps helped me build grit, which is needed in any job, but even more importantly, it taught me how to be both a solid leader and follower. I find team building fundamental to making progress and fundamental to being happy while you do it.
When not in the lab, how do you like to spend your time?
I like to view the world through the eyes of my children. They’re in the golden years right now; they’re young. Everything is new and amazing and beautiful to them. Children smile over 400 times a day and adults smile 20 or less; we can learn a lot from children.
If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?
Park ranger. Everything needs a habitat and nature is ours. I’ve never met an unhappy hiker.
What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real-world significant impact on people’s lives and society?
Fulfilling. I really can’t say much more than that. It gets me up every morning and I’m excited to go to work and make an impact in this quickly-moving field. We may not be able to make the organs yet, but we will have regenerative medicine therapies that will make their way to patients soon.