05 April 2013

Creating Living Tissues Through Synthetic Biology and 3D Printers

A custom-built programmable 3D printer can create materials with several of the properties of living tissues, Oxford University scientists have demonstrated: Droplet network c.500 microns across with electrically conductive pathway between electrodes mimicking nerve.
Credit: Oxford University/G Villar
Researchers have used a 3D printer to create a synthetic living tissue that can perform some of the functions of the cells inside the human body.

Synthetic biology is the science of designing biological components for a specific purpose. Cells and molecules are used to create parts, devices, and biological systems through DNA nanotechnology, bionanodevices, and genetic engineering. These biological components are used to perform a specific function or part of a bigger biological system.

Current applications of synthetic biology in the medical field have addressed specific needs such as diagnosing diseases, monitoring and identifying cancer cells and also for treatment of common ailments such as acne. A common application for synthetic biology is the creation of enzymes. Enzymes are natural molecules that create necessary and beneficial chemical reactions in the cells and tissues of the body.

Processes used by synthetic biology involve bioengineering through DNA nanotechnology and genetic manipulation. A new way to create biological structures uses 3D printers that can "print" or create three dimensional objects made up of biological material that would behave in a specific way at a specified time or situation.

Synthetic Biology and 3D Printers

A custom-built programmable 3D printer can create materials with several of the properties of living tissues, Oxford University scientists have demonstrated.

The new type of material consists of thousands of connected water droplets, encapsulated within lipid films, which can perform some of the functions of the cells inside our bodies.

These printed 'droplet networks' could be the building blocks of a new kind of technology for delivering drugs to places where they are needed and potentially one day replacing or interfacing with damaged human tissues. Because droplet networks are entirely synthetic, have no genome and do not replicate, they avoid some of the problems associated with other approaches to creating artificial tissues – such as those that use stem cells.

The team report their findings in this week's Science.

'We aren't trying to make materials that faithfully resemble tissues but rather structures that can carry out the functions of tissues,' said Professor Hagan Bayley of Oxford University's Department of Chemistry, who led the research. 'We've shown that it is possible to create networks of tens of thousands connected droplets. 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.'

Video: 3D Printed Synthetic Tissues

Each droplet is an aqueous compartment about 50 microns in diameter. Although this is around five times larger than living cells the researchers believe there is no reason why they could not be made smaller. The networks remain stable for weeks.

'Conventional 3D 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 Professor Bayley. 'At the moment we've created networks of up to 35,000 droplets but the size of network we can make is really only limited by time and money. For our experiments we used two different types of droplet, but there's no reason why you couldn't use 50 or more different kinds.'

The unique 3D printer was built by Gabriel Villar, a DPhil student in Professor Bayley's group and the lead author of the paper.

The droplet networks can be designed to fold themselves into different shapes after printing – so, for example, a flat shape that resembles the petals of a flower is 'programmed' to fold itself into a hollow ball, which cannot be obtained by direct printing. The folding, which resembles muscle movement, is powered by osmolarity differences that generate water transfer between droplets.

Gabriel Villar of Oxford University's Department of Chemistry said: 'We have created a scalable way of producing a new type of soft material. The printed structures could in principle employ much of the biological machinery that enables the sophisticated behaviour of living cells and tissues.'


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