Researchers develop new method to print biological structures

A new method mixing techniques such as molecular self-assembly and additive manufacturing has been developed to construct complex structures by arranging molecules and cells embedded in a protective ink.

A special ink carries the cells and molecules used in the technique

A new method mixing techniques such as molecular self-assembly and additive manufacturing has been developed to construct complex structures by arranging molecules and cells embedded in a protective ink.

Scientists at the Queen Mary University of London have developed a printing technique through which cells and molecules normally found in natural tissues are arranged in formats that resemble biological structures. This approach was achieved by combining two methods, molecular self-assembly, and additive manufacturing. With molecular self-assembly, the molecules required to build complex structures are arranged like brick pieces. Additive manufacturing, often referred to as 3D printing, allows the components to be arranged in great detail with computer-controlled parameters.

To make this mixed-method work, scientists created a special ink that replicates the native environments in which the cells and molecules would behave naturally. That way, they can function just as they would in their biological setting, such as for example, the human body.

This new method brings together three scales for managing materials and components: microscopic, macroscopic and the nano-scale. 3D printing currently works with the use of materials on the microscopic and macroscopic scale while self-assembly is employed for managing components at the cellular, molecular and atomic scale. The combination of these three scales helped to overcome the hurdles posed to complex structural construction that had limited 3D printing in the past due to the inability of printing inks to preserve and stimulate the cells needed in the process.

One of the key researchers involved in this project, Ph.D. student Clara Hedegaard explained that the mix-methods approach allows printing multiple biomolecule layers which in turn can assemble into clear biological structures. To Hedegaard, the development of a special ink opens many opportunities for controlling chemical and physical properties at the different scales used. Even more, this control can occur during and after printing and with this option, it becomes possible to stimulate cell behavior.

This innovation will enable researchers to observe cellular behavior in these controlled environments, and possibly extend these studies to settings where immune-system cellular interaction or cancer growth occurs, opening new opportunities for drug R&D.

For Prof. Alvaro Mata from the Queen Mary University of London’s School of Engineering and Materials, the method will push the design and construction of both complex and specific cell environments that will eventually help the work of tissue engineering and in vitro models that can enable the invention of more efficient drug tests. Hence with such a technique enabling digital control and molecular precision, new opportunities are on the horizon for regenerative medicine, tissue engineering, drug development and the creation of complex structures that can mimic body parts.

C.L. Hedegaard, E. C. Collin, C. Redondo-Gómez, L. T. H. Nguyen, K. W. Ng, A. A. Castrejón-Pita, J. R. Castrejón-Pita, A. Mata, Adv. Funct. Mater. 2018, 1703716.

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