Custom 3-D Printer Pumps Out Synthetic Tissues Made of Tiny Droplets (Video)

First Posted: Apr 04, 2013 03:00 PM EDT

There's a new way to create materials with the properties of living tissues. Oxford University scientists have designed a programmable 3-D printer than can pump out a material that can flex like muscle or communicate like neurons.

The printer itself generates material that's made out of thousands of tiny, connected water droplets that are encapsulated within a very fine layer of oil. This material can perform some of the basic functions of the cells inside our own bodies. About 50 microns in diameter, the droplets are about five times larger than living cells. Yet researchers believe that they could potentially make the droplets far smaller.

"Conventional 3-D printers aren't up to the job of creating these droplet networks, so we custom built one in our Oxford lab to do it," said Hagan Bayley, lead researcher, in a press release. "At the moment we've created networks of up to 35,000 droplets, but the size of the network we can make is really only limited to time and money."

This new material could be the start of a new kind of technology that could deliver drugs to places where they are need in the body. It could also potentially replace or interface damaged human tissues. Because the droplets are entirely synthetic, they have no genome and do not replicate, which avoids some of the problems associated with other approaches to creating artificial tissues.

"We aren't trying to make materials that faithfully resemble tissues, but rather structures that can carry out the functions of tissues," said Bayley in a press release. "The droplets can be printed with protein pores to form pathways through the network that mimic nerves and are able to transmit electrical signals from one side of a network to the other."

In fact, the network of droplets can be designed to fold themselves into different shapes after printing--a useful property if they're ever used to replace human tissue. They also remain stable for weeks after they're created. Don't get excited just yet, though; it will take years (if ever) before this type of technology is used as artificial tissue.

The findings are published in the journal Science.

Want to see the printer and the material for yourself? Check out the video here.

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