Technology that can quickly fabricate microscale 3D structures out of soft, biocompatible hydrogels has been developed at the University of California, San Diego.
According to the university, the technology could lead to better systems for growing and studying cells, including stem cells, in the laboratory.
In the longer term, the goal is to be able to print biological tissues for regenerative medicine. For example, in the future, doctors may repair the damage caused by heart attack by replacing it with tissue that came off a printer.
Reported in the journal Advanced Materials, the biofabrication technology, called dynamic optical projection stereolithography (DOPsL), was developed in the laboratory of NanoEngineering Prof Shaochen Chen.
Current fabrication techniques, such as photolithography and micro-contact printing, are limited to generating simple geometries or 2D patterns. Stereolithography is best known for its ability to print large objects such as tools and car parts.
The difference, said Chen in a statement, is in the micro- and nanoscale resolution required to print tissues that mimic nature’s fine-grained details, including blood vessels. Without the ability to print vasculature, an engineered liver or kidney, for example, is useless in regenerative medicine.
With DOPsL, Chen’s team was able to achieve more complex geometries common in nature such as flowers, spirals and hemispheres. Other current 3D fabrication techniques, such as two-photon photopolymerisation, can take hours to fabricate a 3D part.
The biofabrication technique uses a computer projection system and precisely controlled micromirrors to shine light on a selected area of a solution containing photo-sensitive biopolymers and cells.
This photo-induced solidification process is said to form one layer of solid structure at a time, but in a continuous fashion.
The technology is part of a new biofabrication technology that Chen is developing under a four-year, $1.5m (£925,154) grant from the US National Institutes of Health.