New material enables 3D-printed vascular structures

A new material that can be 3D printed to create tissue-like vascular structures has been developed by an international team of scientists.

Close-up of a tubular structure made by simultaneous printing and self-assembling between graphene oxide and a protein (Image: University of Nottingham)

Researchers led by Professor Alvaro Mata at the University of Nottingham and Queen Mary University London have found a way to 3D print graphene oxide with a protein which can organise into tubular structures that replicate some properties of vascular tissue. Their findings are published in Nature Communications.

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“This work offers opportunities in biofabrication by enabling simultaneous top-down 3D bioprinting and bottom-up self-assembly of synthetic and biological components in an orderly manner from the nanoscale,” Prof Mata said in a statement. “Here, we are biofabricating micro-scale capillary-like fluidic structures that are compatible with cells, exhibit physiologically relevant properties, and have the capacity to withstand flow. This could enable the recreation of vasculature in the lab and have implications in the development of safer and more efficient drugs, meaning treatments could potentially reach patients much more quickly.”

Biological systems rely on self-assembly to controllably construct molecular building-blocks into complex and functional materials that exhibit properties that include the capacity to grow, replicate, and perform robust functions.

The new biomaterial is made by the self-assembly of a protein with graphene oxide. According to Nottingham, the mechanism of assembly enables the flexible, or disordered, regions of the protein to order and conform to the graphene oxide, generating a strong interaction between them. By controlling the way in which the two components are mixed, it is possible to guide their assembly at multiple size scales in the presence of cells and into complex robust structures.

The material can then be used as a 3D printing bioink to print structures with intricate geometries and resolutions down to 10mm. The research team have reportedly demonstrated the capacity to build vascular-like structures in the presence of cells and exhibiting biologically relevant chemical and mechanical properties.

“There is a great interest to develop materials and fabrication processes that emulate those from nature,” said lead researcher Dr Yuanhao Wu. “However, the ability to build robust functional materials and devices through the self-assembly of molecular components has until now been limited. This research introduces a new method to integrate proteins with graphene oxide by self-assembly in a way that can be easily integrated with additive manufacturing to easily fabricate biofluidic devices that allow us replicate key parts of human tissues and organs in the lab.”