A new way to print cells could make it easier to 3D print organs

If you think 3D printing plastic is advancing quickly, take a look at bioprinting, a technology that uses inkjet-style printers to create living tissue. Organovo already plans to commercialize its 3D-printed liver tissue this year, and the National Institute of Health recently took an interest in 3D-printed eye tissue.

But squeezing living cells through an inkjet printer kills many of them. Houston Methodist Research Institute researchers say they have developed a better way: a technology called Block-Cell-Printing (BloC-Printing) that leaves nearly 100 percent of the cells alive, instead of 50 to 80 percent. They published their work Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cells printed in a regular grid pattern. Photo courtesy of the Lidong Qin lab.
Cells printed in a regular grid pattern. Photo courtesy of the Lidong Qin lab.

Instead of a nozzle, BloC-Printing relies on a silicone mold to deposit cells. The mold is pitted with tiny holes. When cells are poured into the mold, much like ink being poured onto a stamp, they flow through until they find an empty slot to slip into. Then the mold is lifted away, leaving just the cells. The mold’s holes can be in a grid-shaped pattern, which creates a sheet of regularly-spaced cells. Or the holes can be adapted to form whichever shape researchers need.

Unlike inkjet printing, BloC-Printing can be used only to create 2D shapes at this point. That means printing entire organs or thick tissue is still a ways off. However, it’s much cheaper than inkjet printing. While inkjet printers can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, each BloC-Printing mold costs a dollar to make. A syringe, Petri dish and cells are the only other required materials.

To test the technology, the researchers printed cancer cells and studied their growth. They also printed living brain cells in a regular grid. The cells were able to form connections that allow them to communicate.

“Such work could be helpful in understanding Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases,” research team lead Lidong Qin said in a release. “BloC-Printing can be combined with molecular printing for many types of drug screening, RNA interference and molecule-cell interaction studies. We believe the technology has big potential.”