Sunday 25 August 2019

The dream of printing a better human

Jemma Redmond was a pioneering scientist who was inspired by having been born intersex, and whose untimely death left a void in many communities

The late Jemma Redmond, of Ourobotics, with the 'Best Business Opportunity' award her firm won at the 2016 Exxcel awards in Cork
The late Jemma Redmond, of Ourobotics, with the 'Best Business Opportunity' award her firm won at the 2016 Exxcel awards in Cork

Jonathan deBurca Butler

St Maelruain's in Tallaght is typical of many Church of Ireland houses of worship. Sitting slightly aloof at the top of the village, it is architecturally stunning - and though it is surrounded by the noise of a modern and busy suburb, it is still redolent of a bygone era when this area was countryside and well outside what would have been considered Dublin.

Behind the church's austere beauty lies a peaceful graveyard. The older and more haphazard section is greener and covered in trees. Its gentler undulations are in stark contrast to its more modern, linear and open neighbour closer to the main road. Between these two resting places sits the headstone of an Irish genius whose work and innovations in science may yet go on to save tens of thousands of lives throughout the world.

Jemma Redmond's aim was to print human organs. "She had a real incentive to make bioprinting work because she wanted also to heal herself," says business associate and friend Bill Liao.

"When I spoke to her it was very much a driving force. I don't think she had been well treated by the medical community and I think there were things that she definitely wanted to improve [with] her physicality and I think she could have done it," Liao says of Jemma's special impetus.

When she died suddenly and unexpectedly in August 2016, aged 38, she had five separate patents pending for bioprinters. She was talking with top scientists such as Dr Vladimir Mironov, who had successfully printed and transplanted a thyroid for a mouse in 2015 and was on his way to developing kidney tissue.

But what Jemma wanted, was to create a bioprinter that was cheap enough but good enough to allow every relevant institution to grow or research the growth of replacement tissue.

"Often enough surgery just isn't enough," she told a conference a month before her death, "We don't have enough tissue, we don't have enough donors. There are people sitting on waiting lists waiting for tissue. And there's a way to fix this. We can use equipment called 3D bioprinters to actually create new tissue from donors or from the patient's own cells."

She pointed out that each year there are more than 100,000 transplants performed around the world but it was Jemma's conviction that "a lot more could be done if there was enough tissue".

Her dream was to have at least one bioprinter in each of the 60,000 hospitals and 10,000 universities across the world. If bioprinters could be produced cheaply but at a good quality, every relevant institution would have access to her printers meaning an end to animal testing, an end to organ waiting lists and, given that cells could be produced from a given patient's cells, less chance of organ rejection.

Beyond that, Jemma saw a world in which the replacement organ could be built in such a way to make it work better than the old version, replete with defence mechanisms (and in some instances she really meant mechanisms) that would enable vital organs to last longer and even monitor themselves from inside the body.

Instead of replicating nature, Jemma asked how technology, physics and engineering could improve it.

"Why make a copy of the same thing, the same organ, when you can literally, make it better?" she said in an interview with Irish Tech News in September 2015. "[It could be] stronger, more efficient, longer lasting, perhaps with embedded sensors to give you an idea of what's going on inside your body. It sounds like science fiction but it is certainly doable."

Jemma's desire to discover was also driven by her own medical history.

"There are a number of reasons I got into the field," she told the SOS Ventures Blog in September 2015, "but I found out I couldn't have children. I have some differences in my body. I was trying to find solutions to the problem. I was trying to see if I could actually fix things, or re-generate tissue. And that's kind of how I got into bioprinting."

"She was very positive and very visionary," says Bill Liao, SOS Ventures European General Partner and CEO of Rebel Bio in Cork. "She wanted to make a real difference in the world. She really wanted to change things and she was a deep believer that technology and engineering was the way to do that."

Bill first met Jemma in 2014 when the Dubliner, as CEO and co-founder of a Cork start-up Ourobotics, was given funding to go on the Hax Accelerator Programme in Shenzhen, China, to make a prototype for a complex 10-material-bioprinter.

"The thing that struck me about her straight away was her extremely strong technical competence," says Liao. "I mean she knew her stuff."

Three years before then, as part of her Masters Degree in Nanobioscience at University College Dublin, Jemma had made her first 3D printer; not in some high-tech laboratory full of the latest bells and whistles but at home, in her kitchen.

"I was just hacking some printers and I used my cooker to heat… the machine, I used an air compressor from a car and the rest of the kitchen for different things."

Her master's thesis involved printing finger bones, which she seeded with a type of bone cell from mice. She went on to assemble the first Revolution printer after three months' work at IndieBioEU, a Cork startup and from there she set up Ourobotics.

The move to Shenzen was hard work but after four months a new and improved prototype was ready for presentation in San Francisco. She and her team had travelled through three different airports before arriving in San Francisco for "demo day", an event packed with investors waiting for something new to get behind.

"We had set up the machine on the top of the table," recalled Jemma. "But I was so exhausted that I leaned back on the table, the table tilted and the machine fell on the floor and smashed to pieces."

It did not put potential investors off and as we speak there are several universities using Jemma's bioprinters in their laboratories.

In January 2016, Ourobotics came first out of 200 competitors across Europe to win the Silicon Valley Open Doors Europe competition held at Google's Dublin office.

"She didn't have all the answers for printing kidneys and livers," said Australian neurosurgeon Ralph Mobbs in an obituary for Jemma published in The Guardian, "but she was laying the platform for people in the next decade to be printing all the good stuff."

Jemma Redmond was born and raised in a typical residential area in Tallaght just two miles from St Maelruain's Church. The house she lived in looked out on to a green on which she must have spent endless summer days playing with her two brothers. Her father worked in construction and her mother in an office.

To get to school every morning Jemma had a short stroll to St Mark's Community School, a local co-ed which today has more than 800 pupils.

Her interest in how things worked started young.

"I have always been dabbling with stuff," she told the SOSV Blog. "I used to get into a lot of trouble for breaking things, taking things apart. I've always had an interest in seeing things work.

"One time I got suspended from college for crashing a network. I'm a very curious person."

After studying Electronic Engineering at the Institute of Technology Tallaght, Jemma left Ireland to study at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, graduating in Applied Physics in 2002.

While there she captained the university's fencing and jiu-jitsu teams and she seems to have been quite sporty. Running was a favourite pastime.

She completed the aforementioned master's at UCD in 2012 and went on to complete a Diploma in Project Management from the Dublin Business School. All of this activity fuelled her innovation and desire to see her bioprinting dream come to fruition.

All along there was a personal motivation to her amibiton. At some point, Jemma discovered she was infertile. She had been born intersex.

Advocacy group TENI defines intersex as follows: "Intersex refers to individuals who are born with sex characteristics (such as chromosomes, genitals, and/or hormonal structure) that do not belong strictly to male or female categories, or that belong to both at the same time.

"A person with an intersex variation may have elements of both male and female anatomy, have different internal organs than external organs, or have anatomy that is inconsistent with chromosomal sex.

"These variations can be identified at birth (where there is obviously ambiguous genitalia), at puberty (when the person either fails to develop certain expected secondary sex characteristics, or develops characteristics that were not expected), later in adulthood (when fertility difficulties present) or on autopsy."

Jemma's Facebook page, left open as a memorial for friends and those who knew her, reveals a lot about her.

She liked chocolate, gave out about public transport, occasionally over-indulged on a night out and seems to have lost her keys at an alarming rate.

She also posted about being intersex. Some of her experiences of verbal and physical abuse in public are alarming, disappointing and heart-wrenching.

"Two teenage girls were waiting behind me, then asking what is it? And tried to shove a phone in my face." she posted in 2014.

"Just really tired of the verbal abuse and being touched. The former is the worst. But at least I haven't been punched for a while," she wrote another time.

There are also some unbelievable displays of bravery.

"Tomorrow is the women's marathon," she wrote in June 2014, "this is a big deal for me. I have to prepare not for the running but for the amount of shit I'm going to get."

Airports and flying seem to have been particularly trying but as well as being on the lookout for new innovations, Jemma was great at finding the humour in things - even tremendous personal adversity.

"Another interesting trip to the airport," she noted. "...the metal detector goes off and the male and female security guards are standing there looking at each other and at me. It was like a... Mexican standoff."

A month before her untimely death, Jemma gave a talk at University College Cork as part of the SynBio Future Conference. In it she spoke wryly of the 'arms race' between different countries to be the first to produce new body parts.

But one question in particular got a very unexpected reply.

"Why did you pick finger bones to start your research?" asked an audience member.

"That's an easy one," replied Jemma. "I did it as a bit of a joke. I was at UCD and they said they'd give me some money so I could go and buy some printers and so I... spent my own money and then they told me that they'd cut my budget... and I wasn't very happy so I printed the fingers because I was essentially…"

She didn't need to say any more, the audience got the joke. Jemma stood there and smiled.

"Scientist gives university the finger," she added as a punchline.

"She was great craic," recalls Bill Liao, "very self-deprecating."

Above all Jemma was an innovator. It remains to be seen if her contribution to science and medicine will make the changes she envisioned but she was without doubt an exceptional person.

"She was always very friendly, at the same time a deep thinker, quite philosophical but also very interested in helping out in the start-up community in Cork," says Bill Liao. "Her death was an utter tragedy. She is not as well-known in Ireland as she should be. She was a leading light in bioprinting. It's not an exaggeration to say she was a world leader."

'Why make a copy of the same thing, the same organ, when you can literally, make it better? It could be stronger, more efficient, longer lasting - perhaps with embedded sensors to give you an idea of what's going on inside your body. It sounds like science fiction - but it is certainly do-able.'

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