Judy Rae

Life in 3D

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The first step toward printing a human organ from a 3D printer was to print human tissue. And that part’s done

by Yvonne Liu

Keith Murphy worked for the pioneering biopharmaceutical giant and Wall Street darling Amgen for over a decade when he quit to co-found the audaciously named Organovo in 2007. The Rolling Hills resident  meant the name of his start-up to be taken literally. Oganovo’s goal was to manufacture new organs, utilizing the newly developed 3-D printing technology.

In 2010, Time magazine named Organovo’s 3-D bioprinter one of the 50 Best Inventions of the Year. The NovoGen MMX bioprinter has paved the way for manufacturing living tissue and organs for human  transplants. In 2012, Organovo was named one of the year’s Most Innovative Companies by MIT Technology Review magazine.

Bioprinting resembles the additive process of a 3D printer. Material is dropped or extruded layer by layer, guided a computer program. Live cells are combined with other material to create bio-ink, or multi-cellular building blocks to form living structures.

The synthetic cells allows pharmaceutical firms to bypass animal testing. Testing on live human tissues allows pharma companies to identify promising drugs sooner, reducing time and development costs.

“We have an opportunity to be much more predictive before we go to clinical trials with a drug,” Murphy said. “We can better understand how a drug works inside a person, or at least inside his liver by conducting tests on 3D printed liver tissue instead of on rats. It’s like human preclinical trials; you’re doing a human trial in the lab.”

A 2014, the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development in Boston found that FDA approval for a new drug requires a decade of research and testing, plus $2.5 billion. Even with that level of investment, only one out of eight drugs obtains FDA approval and makes it to the consumer.

That same year, Organovo released ExVive3D, the first printed liver tissue suitable for research studies. The Scientist magazine named it one of the Top Ten Innovations of the Year. In 2016, Organovo made the magazine’s list again with its human kidney tissue. At the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where world leaders in government, business and technology convened, Organovo was named a Technology Pioneer.

Today, over half of the world’s 25 largest pharmaceuticals use Organovo’s in vitro human living tissue for research. This past spring, two of the companies published studies that found Organovo’s liver tissue testing was superior for research to animal testing.

Murphy said Organovo’s liver tissue is a building block for the future production of complex organs.

The company is planning to introduce a cell phone sized patch of liver tissue for partial liver transplants in 2020. The liver patch will extend the lives of patients waiting for liver transplants.

Every day, in the United States, 20  men, women and children die waiting for a liver. Over 116,000 people were on the United States liver transplant list this past August, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Only 33,611 organ transplants took place in 2016.

UCLA Bioengineering professor Ali Khademhosseini has known Murphy for 10 years said. “Keith really see the future. Not only is he a visionary, but he’s an operational person who can pivot a company’s platform to enable long term success,” he said.

“I do think there were very specific aspects of my background that let me see the opportunity. I have always considered myself a serial entrepreneur,” Murphy said. “With my specific technical background and some insights I had at the time, I could see that we were at a point with bioprinting where it was about to cross a threshold.”

Murphy holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from UCLA.

In April, Murphy stepped down as CEO of Organovo to start Viscient Biosciences. (He remains Organovo’s CEO emeritus). His new company will use Organovo’s technology to develop new drugs to treat liver, kidney, cancer and other diseases.

“We’re going to develop treatments for currently untreatable diseases. I am hopeful of treating  Alzheimer’s, which we don’t have good drugs for.”

Murphy is a sought-after speaker and has served on the Board of Directors of the California Life Sciences Association since 2016. He was the vice chairman of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine in 2013 and 2014 and has served on the Torrance Memorial Medical Center Foundation Board for the past six years.

In 2012, he earned an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management. As an angel investor, Murphy prefers to spread his risk by investing in businesses outside of biotechnology. One investment is Redondo Beach-based Local Roots Farms. This indoor farming company grows the equivalent of acres of farm production in a single shipping container, using 99 percent less water than traditional farming.

Another local company Murphy has invested in is Torrance-based SmartCSM. It has developed a cloud-based software that allows commercial property owners to track their buildings’ heating, electrical and air conditioning systems from any device and location. The company’s clients include the Palos Verdes Library District, the Salvation Army and Torrance Memorial Medical Center.

SmartCSM’s CEO, Craig Caryl, of Rolling Hills Estates, described Keith as “off the charts brilliant. Rarely have I met someone with such deep intelligence who is also so personable. Keith is just really fun and easy to be around.”

When Caryl met Murphy at a Starbucks to pitch his business venture, he found Murphy immersed in “The Evolution of Senescence in the Tree of Life,” a 441-page tome about aging. Caryl, who regularly receives emails from Murphy at 4 a.m., said Murphy’s curiosity knows no bounds. “Keith is completely fascinated about the world.”

Murphy spends his nonworking time with his family..

“One of the benefits of stepping down as a full time CEO is that I’m super involved with my children,” Murphy said. He and wife Dr. Amanda Murphy, TMMC’s chief of radiology, have twin three-and-a-half-year-old daughters. Murphy recently took a parenting class at the girls’ preschool.

“A lot of time with family, a lot of working — that’s what I enjoy,” Murphy said.