Researchers at University at Buffalo in New York have developed a new technique that allows them to rapidly 3D print hydrogel materials containing viable cells. The researchers hope that their method will pave the way for 3D organ printing in the future.
Current limitations include the slow pace of 3D printing, leading to poor viability of such printed constructs. The new technique, called fast hydrogel stereolithography printing (FLOAT), significantly reduces the environmental stresses placed on encapsulated cells that are typical with other techniques.
The shortage of donor organs for transplant has spurred a huge research effort to develop lab-produced alternatives. 3D printing holds enormous promise in this regard, and researchers hope that one day they will simply be able to print an entire organ. This concept typically involves printing a biocompatible matrix, such as a hydrogel, that contains live cells.
However, the printing process can be harsh for the encapsulated cells, and the long printing times don’t help. With the ability to quickly print hydrogel constructs, this new technique helps living cells survive the printing process. “The technology we’ve developed is 10-50 times faster than the industry standard, and it works with large sample sizes that have been very difficult to achieve previously,” said Ruogang Zhao, a researcher involved in the study.
Through tight control of the photopolymerization conditions, the technique can produce centimeter-sized hydrogel constructs within minutes. The team also tested its ability to print cells and embedded blood vessel networks, which will be crucial for the proper function of 3D-printed organs. Indeed, the researchers have shown that it is highly suited to this task.
“Our method allows for the rapid printing of centimeter-sized hydrogel models. It significantly reduces part deformation and cellular injuries caused by the prolonged exposure to the environmental stresses you commonly see in conventional 3D printing methods,” said Chi Zhou, another researcher involved in the study.
The printed vessel networks within the hydrogel constructs allow nutrient solution to penetrate deep into the constructs, a crucial factor in achieving viable printed organs.
See a video showing the printing process:
Study in Advanced Healthcare Materials: Fast Stereolithography Printing of Large‐Scale Biocompatible Hydrogel Models