Advanced tissue manufacturing technologies like 3D bioprinting are helping to address various critical healthcare needs, like the massive and growing shortage of body organs around the globe, improving the outcomes for millions of patients.
And in recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) has been integrated with induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technologies and with tissue bioprinting. This has created new opportunities in the development of functional, personalized tissue and organ products for a wide range of regenerative medicine applications.
“We have an opportunity to dramatically change healthcare and improve the human condition,” said Vahid Serpooshan, assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, whose lab specializes in the development and use of cutting edge 3D bioprinting technologies to create functional tissue models.
“The field is growing super-fast, but there has been a lack of social justice or inclusivity in tissue engineering and organ manufacturing,” Serpooshan added. “AI-enabled biomanufacturing needs large datasets. But a great majority of studies are based on data, stem cells, and other biological materials from a very narrow population group – mainly, white males – which doesn’t accurately represent the rich diversity of humanity.”
Consequently, a large segment of society from various racial and ethnic backgrounds are deprived from adequate solutions in tissue manufacturing and regenerative medicine. So, even while biomedical technologies are improving healthcare, they’re also exacerbating existing health disparities.
But now, through a program called AI.Humanity with a Social Justice Lens, interdisciplinary teams of researchers from Georgia Tech and Emory have begun taking hopeful steps toward addressing those disparities, with the goal of ensuring that new technologies work effectively for all patients.
Reframing the Narrative
“Our explicit goal is to reframe the narrative of advanced biotechnology development and move the field in a positive direction,” said Aaron Levine, associate dean of research and outreach in Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. Levine is one of the investigators collaborating with Serpooshan, along with Saman Zonouz, associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Elizabeth Newman, assistant professor in Emory’s Department of Mathematics.
The initial plan is to utilize stem cells obtained from donors from diverse backgrounds (Black, Hispanic, and White), which are commercially available. Serpooshan’s lab will differentiate the iPSCs into cardiac muscle cells, which will be used as bioink to create patient-specific cardiac tissue using 3D bioprinting. Afterwards, tissue functions will be measured, and the subsequent collected data will be fed into an AI platform to modify bioprinting processes accordingly.
“Our aim in this collaborative, interdisciplinary project is to utilize domain-specific AI-based approaches to develop reliable and dependable tissue bioprinting processes, which are optimized for patients of various racial and ethnic backgrounds,” said Zonouz, who is leading the AI research effort on the Georgia Tech side. “Next generation tissue engineering and additive bioprinting enables core societal health needs. however, its increasing reliance on complicated processes and highly networked computing assets opens doors to biases and failures.”
Zonouz, who has a joint appointment in the School of CyberSecurity and Privacy and runs the Cyber-Physical Security Lab at Georgia Tech, will work on ensuring that the bioprinting processes are dependable against various biases that can be caused by data sources – accidental failures as well as potentially malicious efforts to affect data.
“We see this as the first steps in a long-term effort to train an AI model that can eventually allow efficient derivation of functional cells. and biomanufacturing of functional tissue, from a diverse range of donors,” Levine said. “In the longer-term, this effort aims at reducing disparities and pushing toward a more just healthcare system,” Levine said.
While Serpooshan’s lab works in the tissue engineering space, Zonouz and Newman will provide their computing and math expertise, and Levine will focus on framing the project by exploring the nature of potential injustice and building a case for why AI could offer an effective response to an ethical challenge.
Focusing the Social Justice Lens
The idea for the project, which is entitled “AI-Assisted Social Justice in Tissue and Organ Biomanufacturing,” took root almost spontaneously at an event co-hosted by Georgia Tech and Emory in November 2022. Researchers from both universities were invited to network, brainstorm, find common interests, then turn that into a collaborative project.
Five teams were formed, and they had 45 minutes to consider problems and solutions and develop a pitch, with seed grant funding up for grabs. In the end, two teams were selected and granted $100,000 to get started on their work. In addition to the tissue engineering team, another group will work on developing AI that improves infrared technology, like that used in pulse oximeters or thermometers, which are calibrated to work well on lighter colored skin but are not as effective in providing accurate diagnoses for people with darker skin.
For the tissue and organ biomanufacturing focus, Levine is particularly well-positioned to share social justice issues and the research team’s efforts with a wider research community. He’s part of the leadership team for the NSF Engineering Research Center for Cell Manufacturing (CMaT) at Georgia Tech, where he guides ethics and policy research. He also is vice chair of the International Society for Cell and Gene Therapy’s ethics committee.
“I hope to connect this work to the broader cell manufacturing and cell therapy community,” Levine said. “Both to ensure that our efforts are relevant to ongoing research and development, and to facilitate future connections and applications of our approach.”