Science: 3-D Printed Materials Resemble Biological Tissues

VIDEO: Time-lapse movie of a flower-shaped printed droplet network spontaneously folding to form a hollow sphere. [Credit: Gabriel Villar, Alexander D. Graham and Hagan Bayley (University of Oxford)]

 A printed, three-dimensional material could one day mimic the behavior of cells in tissues, new research in the 5 April issue of the journal Science shows.

The tissue-like materials developed by Gabriel Villar at Balliol College and colleagues have the consistency of soft rubber, with an elasticity similar to brain and fat tissues.

The researchers aim to eventually build materials that could be used for medical applications like controlled drug release. In the long-term, they hope to integrate the technology with living tissues to potentially repair or augment failing organs.

The tissue-like material was made using a three-dimensional printer that ejects individual water droplets, each surrounded by lipid-rich oil that allows the droplets to bond together. Each water droplet is one picoliter, or one trillionth of a liter in volume.



Droplet networks printed in water. [Courtesy of Gabriel Villar, Alexander D. Graham and Hagan Bayley]

The printed networks are then assembled on a tray that moves in order to nudge each droplet into position. The droplets stick together, separated by a single thin membrane into which protein pores can be placed to allow communication between neighboring droplets.


The droplet networks that comprise the tissue-like material are thus akin to cells—though in a simplified way—because they self-organize in a defined pattern and can work together to produce emergent properties by communicating with each other and with the external environment.

Villar and colleagues show that the printed material can make folding movements similar to muscle-like activity, and can be equipped with communication networks that operate like neurons.

Read the abstract, “A Tissue-Like Printed Material,” by Gabriel Villar and colleagues.

Nadia Ramlagan

4 April 2013