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A new method of 3D printing living tissues

Scientists at the University of Oxford have developed a new method to 3D-print laboratory-grown cells to form living structures. The approach could revolutionize regenerative medicine, enabling the production of complex tissues and cartilage that would potentially support, repair or augment diseased and damaged areas of the body.

Printing high-resolution living tissues is hard to do, as the cells often move within printed structures and can collapse on themselves. But, led by Hagan Bayley, Ph.D., professor of chemical biology in Oxford’s Department of Chemistry, the team devised a way to produce tissues in self-contained cells that support the structures to keep their shape.

The cells were contained within protective nanoliter droplets wrapped in a lipid coating that could be assembled, layer-by-layer, into living structures. Producing printed tissues in this way improves the survival rate of the individual cells, and allowed the team to improve on current techniques by building each tissue one drop at a time to a more favorable resolution.

To be useful, artificial tissues need to be able to mimic the behaviors and functions of the human body. The method enables the fabrication of patterned cellular constructs, which, once fully grown, mimic or potentially enhance natural tissues.

Alexander Graham, Ph.D., lead author and 3D bioprinting scientist at OxSyBio (Oxford Synthetic Biology), said: “We were aiming to fabricate three-dimensional living tissues that could display the basic behaviors and physiology found in natural organisms. To date, there are limited examples of printed tissues, which have the complex cellular architecture of native tissues. Hence, we focused on designing a high-resolution cell printing platform, from relatively inexpensive components, that could be used to reproducibly produce artificial tissues with appropriate complexity from a range of cells including stem cells.”

The researchers hope that with further development, the materials could have a wide impact on healthcare worldwide. Potential applications include shaping reproducible human tissue models that could take away the need for clinical animal testing. Over the coming months they will work to develop new complementary printing techniques that allow the use of a wider range of living and hybrid materials to produce tissues at industrial scale.