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Scientists Create 3-D Printer that Can Build Synthetic Tissue

Update Date: Apr 05, 2013 01:25 PM EDT

In recent years, 3-D printing has been used to construct everything from guns to clothing. Now, researchers may have a more impressive accomplishment under their belts. Researchers from the University of Oxford have created a method for constructing objects that act like human tissue. In the future, the technology may even be harnessed to deliver drugs to individual cells or even to build synthetic tissues to replace damaged human ones.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the 3-D printer creates a lipid bilayer that separates water droplets. Cell membranes have two portions to them: a water-loving outside, perfect for negotiating the large amounts of water found in the body, and a water-phobic inside. That balance allows cells to interact with the world outside their borders, while keeping their contents protected.

Scientists are able to create synthetic versions of the cells by hand. However, the process was long and tedious. That is why the researchers created a machine that used the pipette to do the work for them. Still, they were surprised by the properties that the lipid bilayer developed after the machine performed its task, connecting 35,000 droplets.

"What we didn't really expect was that once we could print these droplets out and eject them en masse and assemble them into different geometries, the collection of droplets behaved not just as a loose aggregate of objects but really as a cohesive material, and that kind of changed our thinking throughout the work," Gabriel Villar said to The Los Angeles Times.

The lipid bilayers are five times the size of human cells. Regardless, they are biologically compatible. If pathways for protein can be inserted into the layers, the layers can serve as channels for nerves.

Already, the 3-D printed creation can do astonishing things. It can contract, an ability like that of muscles. When a conductive channel was placed in the layer, the cells were able to transmit electrical signals, like a rudimentary version of the work of nerves.

"We aren't trying to make materials that faithfully resemble tissues, but rather structures that can carry out the functions of tissues," Hagan Bayley said to ABC Science.

The research was published in the journal Science.

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