3-D Printer Makes Synthetic Tissues from Watery Drops

Ed Yong over at Not Exactly Rocket Science:

In the University of Oxford, Gabriel Villar has created a 3-D printer with a difference. While most such printers create three-dimensional objects by laying down metals or plastics in thin layers, this one prints in watery droplets. And rather than making dolls or artworks or replica dinosaur skulls, it fashions the droplets into something a bit like living tissue.

Each of your cells, whether it’s a neuron or muscle cell, is basically a ball of liquid encased by a membrane. The membrane is made from fat-like molecules called lipids, which line up next to one another to create two layers. And that’s exactly what Villar’s 3-D printer makes—balls of liquid encased by a double-layer of lipids.

Other scientists have already created 3-D printers that spit out human cellsin the shape of living tissues, and some have even created facsimiles of entire organs. But Hagan Bayley, who led Villar’s study, thinks that there’s value in creating tissues that look and behave like living ones, but that don’t actually contain any cells. They would probably be cheaper and without any genetic material, you don’t have to worry about controlling growth or division.

The team’s printer has two nozzles that exude incredibly small droplets, each one just 65 picolitres—65 billionths of a millilitre—in volume. The nozzles “print” the drops into oil at the rate of one per second, laying them down with extreme precision. As each drop settles, it picks up a layer of lipids from the surrounding oil, and the layers of neighbouring drops unite to create a double-layered membrane, just like in our cells.