OXFORD, ENGLAND, UK / ANIMATION ( REUTERS/OXFORD UNIVERSITY) - Researchers at Oxford University say they've taken a step towards creating synthetic human tissue on a 3D printer. While the technology is in its infancy, the scientists believe the materials they're producing could one day be used to replace damaged human tissue. Jim Drury has more.
Microscopic water droplets sink into a bath of oil, where they bind together much like clusters of living cells.
Produced by a 3D printer, the droplets could one day be infused with proteins and other ingredients to sustain life. Together they would be designed to form networks of synthetic nerves, capable of transmitting electrical signals like biological nervous systems.
"The technique consists of depositing drops of water one-by-one in a pre-defined pattern, so as to create 3-D structures. This is possible because the water droplets stick together like velcro thanks to a coating of lipids which are natural molecules that constitute the membranes of living cells."
The resulting material is not designed to be a faithful reproduction of tissues, but a structure that mimics their functions in the body.
A demonstration using orange and blue dyes shows how two different substances can be mapped together to build a network. Student Alex Graham explains.
"Having these maps, you can then start saying, ok, we'll just print this layer, then print the next layer, and then you build up a 3-D structure, and what we're doing is we're making these networks out of thousands of droplets and by actually just deciding what's actually in the droplets, we're causing these emergent properties, we're functionalising."
The nano-sized droplets can be designed to fold into different three-dimensional shapes after printing, suggesting a future method of delivering targeted medication to the body.
"At the moment, it's very basic and we can only create very rudimentary mimics of tissues. But with a bit more time and using more sophisticated bio-molecules, we think that the range of functions that you could mimic with this kind of material will be a lot greater. "
The droplet networks would be synthetic, have no genome, and wouldn't replicate. This helps avoid possible mutations caused by using stem cells.
The research is at an early stage, but the team has created networks of 35,000 droplets, although, they say, that's a drop in the bucket compared to what they believe the future holds.