The concept of a “bioprinter” was first made into a reality by the company Organovo, which recently received fully-functional 3D bioprinters to be distributed to institutions that conduct research on human tissue repair and organ replacement. These 3D bioprinters are capable of embedding cells of any type to form a preset pattern, thereby helping them proliferate into usable human tissue. A group of researchers from Houston have come up with a way to achieve this without damaging the cells.
Similar to traditional Chinese woodblock printing done back in the 3rd century, a group of scientists from the Houston Methodist Research Institute have discovered a method of printing cells with very minimal damage to the cells used. This method is available in this week’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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The team is led by a member of the institute’s nanomedicine faculty, Lidong Qin, Ph.D. Qin explains that their method can make use of a wide variety of cells, and accomplishes 2D cell printing in as quickly as 30 minutes, while being able to embed the cells within 5 micrometers of each other. The team has decided to call the technique “Block-Cell-Printing” or “BloC-Printing.”
“We feel the current technologies are inadequate,” said Dr. Qin. “Inkjet-based cell printing leaves many of the cells damaged or dead. We wanted to see if we could invent a tool that helps researchers obtain arrays of cells that are alive and still have full activity.”
While bioprinting is a huge advancement in tissue and organ studies, most 2D and 3D cell printing have utilized electricity-gated inkjet techniques that, although successful in growing usable tissue, tends to kill about 50-80% of all cells used. Qin explains that it is imperative for these printed cells to be alive and undamaged, considering cell printing’s purposes: tissue regeneration, cell function, and cell-cell communication. BloC-Printing allows nearly 100% cell survival.
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Qin’s team’s technology accomplishes this by modifying microfluidic physics in order to deliver the healthy cells to “traps” in the mold. Without applying force, BloC-Printing guides the cells down a column so that they flow past already trapped cells in the mold and get caught in the next “trap” in line – much like filling an ice tray with water.
According to Qin, it’s still too early to put a definitive price on their technology, but shared that one BloC mold costs around $1. All that’s necessary to use it would be “a syringe, a suspension of healthy cells, a Petri dish, and a steady hand”.
While this method seems promising especially when one considers cell survival rate, Qin explained that inkjet printers still get the job done faster, and BloC-Printing has yet to advance to multi-layer printing.