Tag Archives: 3d printing

Vaccine-coated, 3D-printed patches may soon replace a syringe near you

Do you hate needles, but still want to get vaccinated? Researchers at Stanford University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have got your back. They developed a new, 3D-printed patch that can get you immunized without any jab.

Design and environmental scanning electron microscope (ESEM) images of the microneedles. (E) is a fluorescence image of the patch in (D). Image credits Cassie Caudill et al., (2021), PNAS.

The patch works even better than a traditional vaccine, its designers explain, as it delivers the compound directly into the skin — which is full of immune cells that respond to it. The resulting immune response is around 10 times greater than that produced by injection through a needle into muscle tissue. However, these findings, for now, should be taken with a pinch of salt; they were obtained from a study conducted with animals, not humans.

Performance patch

“In developing this technology, we hope to set the foundation for even more rapid global development of vaccines, at lower doses, in a pain- and anxiety-free manner,” said lead study author and 3D printing entrepreneur Joseph M. DeSimone, professor of translational medicine and chemical engineering at Stanford University and professor emeritus at UNC-Chapel Hill.

To be fair, it isn’t the patch itself that does the job, but rows upon rows of microneedles coated in vaccine on its underside. These are lined up and, individually, they’re barely long enough to reach the skin, where they dissolve, releasing the vaccine.

One of the main selling points of this technology, in the eyes of the authors, is the ease of use and transportability. For patients, it’s likely that the painlessness of this over other delivery methods will be its most attractive trait, as will the fact that they can administer the patches to themselves without any type of risk.

Application of this patch led to a significant antibody response in lab animals. According to the team, this response was 50 times greater than what would be produced by a direct injection under the skin. This increased response could lead to dose sparing — essentially, immunizing a larger crowd of people on the same quantity of vaccine — as each patch uses a smaller dose to produce the same response as delivery via syringe.

The concept of microneedles has been of interest to the scientific community for quite some time now, but they never really caught on due to difficulties in customizing them for different vaccines. Although 3D printing has given the authors a way to break through past limitations, it’s generally a challenge to adapt microneedles to different vaccine types:

“These issues, coupled with manufacturing challenges, have arguably held back the field of microneedles for vaccine delivery,” said lead study author Shaomin Tian, a researcher in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the UNC School of Medicine. “Our approach allows us to directly 3D print the microneedles which gives us lots of design latitude for making the best microneedles from a performance and cost point-of-view.”

Instead of relying on the traditional approach of creating a mold and then casting the microneedles, the team prints each one out individually. This was carried out at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill using a CLIP prototype 3D printer that DeSimone invented and is produced by CARBON, a Silicon Valley company he co-founded.

Although the quick development of a vaccine remains a key aspect of fighting against a pandemic, our experiences this last year have shown that logistical factors remain an important component limiting our ability to react. This process seems simple — go to a hospital, have someone retrieve a vaccine from a freezer, draw it into a syringe, and administer the shot — but it still poses quite some hurdles from a mass-vaccination standpoint.

For starters, such an approach simply cannot work in areas that lack cold storage, or where there aren’t enough trained professionals to perform the vaccinations. Getting a shot this way also involves going to a hospital or clinic, something not everybody is able or willing to do.

These patches, the team explains, can be delivered anywhere in the world without any special requirements for storage or transportation. They can be applied easily and safely at home without the presence of any trained individuals. This, by itself, could also help boost vaccination rates, the team adds.

“One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic is that innovation in science and technology can make or break a global response,” DeSimone said. “Thankfully we have biotech and health care workers pushing the envelope for us all.”

The paper “Transdermal vaccination via 3D-printed microneedles induces potent humoral and cellular immunity” has been published in the journal PNAS.

3D-printed components are now in use at US nuclear plant

At the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), two unusual components were assembled — and by assembled, I mean 3D-printed. The two channel fasteners are now in use at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant Unit 2 in Athens, Alabama.

ORNL used novel additive manufacturing techniques to 3D print channel fasteners for Framatome’s boiling water reactor fuel assembly. Four components, like the one shown here, were installed at the TVA Browns Ferry nuclear plant. Credit: Framatome

Not too long ago, 3D-printing was an innovative but still new technology that promised to change the world — at some point in the future. Well, that point in the future has come. Not only is the technology mature enough to be used, but it’s mature enough to be used in a crucial system where failure is simply not acceptable.

“Deploying 3D-printed components in a reactor application is a great milestone,” said ORNL’s Ben Betzler in a recent press release. “It shows that it is possible to deliver qualified components in a highly regulated environment. This program bridges basic and applied science and technology to deliver tangible solutions that show how advanced manufacturing can transform reactor technology and components.”

“ORNL offers everything under one roof: state-of-the-art printing capabilities, world-class expertise in machining, next-generation digital manufacturing technologies, plus comprehensive characterization and testing equipment,” said Ryan Dehoff, ORNL section head for Secure and Digital Manufacturing.

The components are a good fit for the task. The channel fasteners have a relatively simple geometry, which works excellently with an additive manufacturing application (which is what “3D printing” commonly refers to). Fuel channel fasteners have been used for many years in boiling water nuclear reactors. They attach the external fuel channel to the fuel assembly, ensuring that the coolant is restrained around each fuel assembly.

[Also Read: The first ever 3D-printed steel bridge opens in Amsterdam]

Growing up

3D printing has matured dramatically in recent years, and the fact that the nuclear industry is increasingly looking towards it speaks volumes about that.

The components were developed in collaboration with the Tennessee Valley Authority, French nuclear reactor Framatome, and the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy. This was funded by the Transformational Challenge Reactor, or TCR, program based at ORNL.

Currently, the TCR aims to further mature and implement innovative technologies (and algorithms such as artificial intelligence) to its components and projects.

“Collaborating with TVA and ORNL allows us to deploy innovative technologies and explore emerging 3D printing markets that will benefit the nuclear energy industry,” said John Strumpell, manager of North America Fuel R&D at Framatome. “This project provides the foundation for designing and manufacturing a variety of 3D-printed parts that will contribute to creating a clean energy future.”

The change has been made for a couple of months now, and operations at the Browns Ferry plant resumed on April 22, 2021. The components appear to operate as intended, and they will remain in the reactor for six years with regular inspections during this period.

This is just one example of the projects that involve 3D printing for nuclear reactors. ORNL are looking at ways to extend the viability and operations of nuclear plants, while also deploying new components that would make plants more efficient and robust.

3D printing is reshaping what’s possible with nuclear energy, and could very well have an important part to play in our transition towards a sustainable, low-carbon future. At the very least, it’s bound to make nuclear energy cheaper and more competitive with fossil fuels.

“There is a tremendous opportunity for savings,” said John Strumpell, manager of U.S. fuel research and development at Framatome, in a previous press release earlier this year. Indeed, 3D printing seems ready to enter the market.

The first ever 3D-printed steel bridge opens in Amsterdam

Queen Maxima of the Netherlands inaugurated the bridge. Image credit: Imperial.

The 12-meter long structure was developed by engineers at Imperial College London, in partnership with the Dutch Company MX3D. It was created by robotic arms using welding torches to deposit the structure of the bridge layer by layer. The construction took over four years, using about 4,500 kilograms of stainless steel. 

“A 3D-printed metal structure large and strong enough to handle pedestrian traffic has never been constructed before,” Imperial co-contributor Professor Leroy Gardner, who was involved in the research, said in a statement. “We have tested and simulated the structure and its components throughout the printing process and upon its completion.”

The bridge will be used by pedestrians to cross the capital’s Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal. Its performance will be regularly monitored by the researchers at Imperial College, who set up a network of sensors in different parts of the bridge. The data will also be made available to other researchers worldwide who also want to contribute to the study.

The researchers will insert the data into a “digital twin” of the bridge, a computerized version that will imitate the physical bridge in real-time as the sensor data comes in. The performance of the physical bridge will be tested against the twin and this will help answer questions about the long-term behavior of the 3D-printed steel and its use in future projects. 

“For over four years we have been working from the micrometre scale, studying the printed microstructure up to the meter scale, with load testing on the completed bridge,” co-contributor Craig Buchanan said in a statement. “This challenging work has been carried out in our testing laboratories at Imperial, and during the construction process on site in Amsterdam.”

Mark Girolami at the University of Cambridge, who worked on the digital model of the bridge, told New Scientist that investigations into bridge failures often reveal deterioration that was missed. Now, with constant data coming from the bridge, they may be able to detect these failures before they do any damage, he added. 

Image credit: Imperial

3D printing has been consistently making headlines over the past few years, slowly becoming a reality for us commoners. Companies are building houses either fully on 3D or with most of their elements made out of a printer. In Mexico, the world’s first 3D printed neighborhood is already moving forward, while Germany’s first 3D residential building is under construction.

But it’s not just housing, it can be almost anything. With the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers discovered they could print face shields and ventilator parts much faster and cheaper than with regular methods. A 3D printer even built a miniature heart, using a patient’s own cells, as well as human cartilage.

A set of research papers were published by Imperial academics during the construction and testing of the bridge. One was published in September 2020 in the Journal of Construction Steel Research, another one in July 2020 in the journal Materials & Design, and a third one in February 2019 in the journal Engineering Structures

The world’s first 3D-printed school just opened up in Malawi

Using technology to tackle the shortage of schools in the continent, an affordable housing venture called 14Trees has built the world’s first 3D-printed school in Malawi. The walls were printed in just 18 hours, compared to the several days required by conventional methods, highlighting the possibilities of 3D school construction in developing countries. 

Image credit: 14Trees

14Trees is a joint effort between the United Kingdom’s CDC Group and the European building materials multinational LafargeHolcim. It began scaling up its operations in Africa late last year, and recently completed the first 3D-printed “affordable” house in Africa, printing the walls in just 12 hours 

“The rollout of 14Trees’ world-class, cutting-edge technology is going to have a tremendous developmental impact on Malawi and the wider region. It is a wonderful example of how we are investing in businesses that can support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals,” Tenbite Ermias, CDC’s Managing Director in Africa, said in a statement. 

The school was built in the district of Salima and was then transferred to a village community in the Yambe area, where classes started on June 21. The team at 14Trees first used a large extruder to form the walls of structures before the finishing touches, such as windows, doors, roofing, and various fittings, are added by skilled workers.

Image credit: 14Trees

New technologies to help with the basics

Malawi has one of the worst educational infrastructures in the world. According to UNICEF estimates, the country needs an extra 36,000 new classrooms just to plug the shortage in primary schools — let alone other facilities. While this demand could take 70 years to get fulfilled, 14Trees believes that its 3D printing technique could address the gap in just 10 years.

With the new construction, the Yambe area now has 13 schools, according to Juliana Kuphanga Chikandila, Malawi’s Primary Education Advisor. Nevertheless, 50 more are needed to serve those in need. She said to be impressed with the new building, with a design that provides the space and facilities that students and teachers didn’t have before.

The 3D printing process used by 14Trees significantly reduces the time, cost, and materials used for building housing and schools, while reducing their environmental footprint by more than 50% compared to conventional methods. The 3D projects also sustain skilled job creation by hiring and upskilling local experts in dynamic roles such as 3D machine operators. 

“I am very proud of how our colleagues at 14Trees have deployed cutting-edge 3D printing technology to solve such an essential infrastructure need. Now that we’ve proven the concept in Malawi, we look forward to scaling up this technology across the broader region, with projects already in the pipeline in Kenya and Zimbabwe,” Miljan Gutovic, Region Head at LafargeHolcim, said in a statement.

3D printing has been consistently making headlines over the past few years, slowly becoming a reality for us commoners. Companies are building houses either fully on 3D or with most of their elements made out of a printer. In Mexico, the world’s first 3D printed neighborhood is already moving forward, while Germany’s first 3D residential building is under construction.

But it’s not just housing, it can be almost anything. With the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers discovered they could print face shields and ventilator parts much faster and cheaper than with regular methods. A 3D printer even built a miniature heart, using a patient’s own cells, as well as human cartilage.

Dome-shaped house in Italy is 3-D printed entirely from local clay

Credit: Iago Corazza.

By combining state-of-the-art 3D printing with a construction material humans have been using for millennia, a team of daring engineers and architects from Italy are seeking to reimagine sustainable buildings.

The pilot project, called TECLA (TEchnology and CLAy), employed specialized machines whose nozzles ooze liquified clay dug up from a nearby riverbed. The end result is a 3D-printed dwelling essentially made out of locally sourced mud, rather than environmentally-taxing concrete.

The 60-square-meter home took only 200 hours of continuous extrusion to complete, during which 60 cubic meters of clay was printed layer by layer via 7,000 instructions sent by a computer until it reached its final double-dome shape. The furnishings inside were also printed in one go along with the building’s 12-cm-thick walls. According to chief architect Mario Cucinella, the TECLA house used less than 6kW of power during its printing.

Credit: WASP.
Credit: Iago Corazza.
Credit: Iago Corazza.

“It’s combining this evolution in technology with a basic material you can find anywhere on the planet,” Cucinella told Wired. “A combination between high tech and local material.”

Cucinella partnered with Italian 3-D engineering firm WASP to erect the circular model entirely out of reusable and recyclable materials.

“TECLA is in fact the peak of advanced research between matter and technology, it is the achievement of an unparalleled challenge that has brought the printing geometry to its physical limit. The project represents an unprecedented perspective for buildings and new settlements, in which the value of local raw materials is amplified by digital design. The double dome solution made it possible to cover at the same time the roles of structure, roof and external cladding, making the house high-performance on all aspects,” reads a press statement on the WASP website.

Each dome is capped with a glass skylight that allows plenty of natural light into the living quarters, although Cucinella stresses that the design can be easily tweaked to accomodate different climates.

Ultimately, for Cucinella and colleagues, this project is all about proving to the world that it is still possible to construct truly sustainable buildings in the 21st century.

Credit: WASP.

The concrete industry is one of the most environmentally damaging in the world, accounting for 9% of total global CO2 emissions in 2018. Nearly 80% of concrete’s carbon emissions come from cement, which accounts for about 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter in the world — not far behind China and the US. It contributes more CO2 than aviation fuel (2.5%) and is not far behind the global agriculture business (12%). But, overall, the construction industry, which includes not only the manufacturing of cement but also the transportation of heavy materials across the world, was responsible for a staggering 38% of all carbon emissions in 2019, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Next, Cucinella would like to scale the project to multiple stories and experiment with other types of locally-sourced materials, such as wood used for flooring and support beams.

“We like to think that TECLA is the beginning of a new story,” Cucinella told Dezeen.

“It would be truly extraordinary to shape the future by transforming this ancient material with the technologies we have available today.”

Faster, greener, cheaper: Your next home may be printed instead of built

A new generation of start-ups wants to disrupt the way houses are developed — and they’re already on the market.

Image via Dezeen.

For those uninitiated in 3D printing (although years of maker sites, souvenirs, prosthetic limbs, and car parts have already shown us the wonders of 3D printing) here is a useful definition of 3D printing from Associated Press: “3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, uses machines to deposit thin layers of plastic, metal, concrete and other materials atop one another, eventually producing three-dimensional objects from the bottom up.”

Printing in three dimensions.

You may think 3D printing is all about small objects — and for the most part, that’s true, most printers are small in size and can only produce small objects. But increasingly, 3D printers are being used for larger objects. Houses, in particular, are an attractive field for it.

The time has never been as ripe as it is now for 3D printing. Innovation is in the air; prices for 3D printers are dropping; more affordable and durable materials are being developed; and there’s a shortage of wood and other materials conventionally used for house building. All the elements have aligned to make 3D-printed structures competitive with regular materials.

In fact, many believe that 3D printed houses could not only be comparable in price to conventional houses — but they could be cheaper. The construction time could also be reduced substantially. The World Economic Forum acknowledged the significance of this industry-changer — 3D printing can raise a house within days, compared to weeks or (more often) months.

Mighty Buildings is a case in point. As reported in Sustainable Brands, the firm basically makes construction panels. These can be bolted together as building blocks for structures. They use a thermoset composite material created via 3D-printer technology and the whole process is very efficient: the material hardens immediately under UV light.

Another 3D printing company on the construction scene is ICON, leveraging advanced robotics. They can print up to three houses at a time. Fast Company looked at their capabilities and reported that, on one site, it tried printing multiple homes at once. It was an experiment and they discovered it was possible, enabling them to go faster and reduce costs. Fast Company described the Vulcan printer, at 33 feet long, as working “like a giant version of desktop 3D printers, squirting out a custom concrete mixture in layers like frosting on a cake. The process builds the walls of the house, with other parts, including the roof and windows, added later.”

But are 3D printed houses too limited a solution for a giant problem of lack of affordable housing? How is this a practical solution? The CTO answered the question with another question: “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Down to Earth

In Italy, meanwhile, 3D printed homes are, literally, breaking ground. If you’re yawning over structures that look like super-sized cartons and resonate with a bicycle, dog and morning newspaper on the doorstep, wait for this. WASP has delivered a startling alternative.

3D printed houses. Image credits: Wasp.
Te inside. Image credits: Wasp.

WASP is a 3D printing company that partnered with Mario Cucinella Architects to make a “TECLA” house near Bologna, Italy. It is a dome-shaped structure, a circular model that has the appearance of coming up straight from the earth under it.

Construction was based on natural materials and it was made with two printer arms running at the same time. The recipe: soil blended with water and special additives. It presents close to a net zero footprint and uses about a hundred layers of 3D-printed clay.

“Each printer has the capacity to print an area of 50 sq m (538 sq ft), making it possible to accomplishing a single housing module in a matter of days,” as per New Atlas. The house has an open living room with a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and wardrobe storage. A skylight brings natural light during the day and “star gazing” at night. New Atlas called TECLA a “pioneering example for low-carbon housing construction.”

At the moment, it’s still hard to say if 3D printed houses will become mainstream. But the signs are there. Already, the first 3D printed house in the US was sold — and at a price much lower than its competitors in the area. No doubt, 3D printing is just getting started and it may not be long before it starts popping up in a neighborhood near you.

Watch a 3D printer produce an entire boat

Using a massive 3D printer, the University of Maine built the world’s largest 3D-printed boat. Here it is — it took more than three and a half days, but you can see it in half a minute.

The team set three world records in the process: world’s largest 3D printer, largest solid 3D-printed object, and largest 3D-printed boat. But the researchers didn’t build the boat for quirks and records — they built it to see if wood and plastic could work together for 3D printing.

If wood can be integrated into large-scale 3D printing, it could serve as a possible replacement for metal, becoming a more sustainable alternative. Normally, when building large things, you want metal because it’s so strong and rigid. But biobased materials like wood could offer similar parameters at a fraction of a cost.

“Maine is the most forested state in the nation, and now we have a 3D printer big enough to make use of this bountiful resource,” said Maine Senator Angus King, who attended the boat’s unveiling.

The 25-foot patrol boat is now tested with a wind machine and wave basin at an offshore facility, and if the approach is confirmed, it could mark a turning point for 3D-printed materials.

The key element that allows traditional 3D-printing polymers to “play nice” with wood is something called cellulose nanofibers, or CNF. CNF consists of tiny fibers that can be integrated with thermoplastic to make the resulting material much stronger. Cellulose nanofiber is lightweight, durable, and has thermal expansion parameters on par with glass. It’s also sustainable and has a low environmental impact. It’s not surprising that teams are looking to incorporate it.

“The UMaine Composites Center received $500,000 from the Maine Technology Institute (MTI) to form a technology cluster to help Maine boatbuilders explore how large-scale 3D printing using economical, wood-filled plastics can provide the industry with a competitive advantage,” says a UMaine news release. “The cluster brings together the expertise of UMaine researchers and marine industry leaders to further develop and commercialize 3D printing to benefit boatbuilders in the state. By 3D printing plastics with 50% wood, boat molds and parts can be produced much faster and are more economical than today’s traditional methods.”

This is also a stepping stone for other, even more ambitious projects. 3D printing is entering a golden stage, and finding ways to incorporate sustainable materials with the desired properties into larger designs is already a major field of research. The University of Maine recently secured $2.8 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a more eco-friendly method of 3D printing wind turbine blade molds, using the same printing system.  

An NGO is building the world’s first 3D-printed school in Madagascar

An NGO is building the world’s first 3D-printed school as a way to address the need for further educational spaces in under-resourced communities. The nonprofit Thinking Huts is behind the pilot project on the African island nation of Madagascar, which will be escalated to other countries in the future to increase global access to education.

Credit: Studio Mortazavi/Thinking Huts.

The school was designed by Studio Mortazavi, an architecture firm based in San Francisco and Lisbon, in alliance with Thinking Huts. The NGO specifically chose Madagascar for the pilot among other countries because of stable political outlook, renewable energy potential and need for further educational infrastructure.

The school will be located on the campus of a university in Fianarantsoa, a city in the south-central area of Madagascar. It has a modular design similar to a honeycomb, with nodes that can be linked together – each including a room with two bathrooms and a closet. Only one node will be built now for the school and more may be added later in the future.

The architect of the project, Amir Mortazavi, told Fast Company the benefits of the 3D printing approach – saving time and reducing costs. “We can build these schools in less than a week, including the foundation and all the electrical and plumbing work that’s involved. Something like this would typically take months, if not even longer,” he argued.

Credit: Studio Mortazavi/Thinking Huts.

Mortazavi said the nodes can be combined to form clusters of rooms that expand the space or remain as individual rooms for educational purposes. “We can have classrooms for different age groups, science laboratories, computer laboratories, housing for teachers, for students, music nodes, fine arts rooms,” he said. The first node will be built in conjunction with the university.

Just like other 3D printed buildings, the school will be built using a machine-driven process that pipes out smooth layers of concrete-like material that cures to form the structure, including space for utilities, windows, and doors. This will make the construction much cheaper than using conventional methods, also addressing the local difficulties of finding skilled labor.

The printer was provided by Hyperion Robotics, a Finnish company that specializes in 3D printing solutions for reinforced concrete. The walls will be made of layers of a special cement mixture that Thinking Hats claims release fewer emissions. Meanwhile, the roof, doors, and windows will be sourced locally. The whole construction can be done in less than a week.

Credit: Studio Mortazavi/Thinking Huts.

It’s a pilot project, with the purpose of training technologists at the university. Once the construction is finished, Thinking Hats will leave the used 3D printer at the university, so they can keep building 3D-printed schools all across the country as they feel necessary.

The actual construction will happen in the latter half of this year, hoping to get students into the classroom as soon as the pandemic is no longer a major threat to the local community’s health. “We can use this as a case study. Then we can go to other countries around the world and train the local technologists to use the 3D printer and start a nonprofit there to be able to build schools,” said Mortazavi.

3D printing has been consistently making headlines over the past few years, slowly becoming a reality for us commoners. Some companies are building houses either fully on 3D or with most of their elements made out of a printer. In Mexico, the world’s first 3D printed neighborhood is already moving forward, while Germany’s first 3D residential building is under construction.

The first 3D printed house in the US is now officially on sale — for $300,000

A company has listed what is reported to be the first 3D printed house in the United States. The property, built by SQ4D and located in Long Island, New York, has received a certificate of occupancy and is already listed on MLS for sale as new construction for $299,999 – which the company claims is 50% cheaper than regular new homes in the area.

The house on sale. Image credit: SQ4D

SQ4D is a New York company that focuses on engineering and building high-quality sustainable houses with an autonomous robotic 3D construction system (ARCS). The company uses an approach where robots build the foundations, exterior walls, interior walls, utility conduits, and more, which reduces labor to three people, uses far less energy, and cuts construction times.

Essentially, the approach uses more expensive materials and robots to cut down on construction time and worker cost, so it’s best suited in areas where labor costs are high — like New York, for instance.

However, the technology will be soon be able to eliminate more expensive and inferior building materials, SQ4D believes, making 3D structures even more cost-effective. Using concrete reduces the cost by at least 30%, as well as making the structure more fire resistant than traditional methods. Here’s a video presentation.

The 3D house that just entered the market in Long Island has 1,400 square feet of living space and a 750 square car garage. It includes three bedrooms and two full bathrooms, featuring an open floor plan. It’s fully built with concrete and includes a 50-year limited warranty that SQ4D gives on its 3D printed structure.

Of course, in addition to the technology (which is innovative), the house also comes with some bragging rights and a lot of marketing.

“Own a piece of history! This is the world’s first 3D printed home for sale,” the listing of the house states. “This home is carefully developed to exceed all energy efficiency codes and lower energy costs. SQ4D provides a stronger build than traditional concrete structures while utilizing a more sustainable building process.”

Stephen King of Realty Connect, the Zillow Premier agent who has the listing, said in a statement that the US$300,000 market price is actually 50% below the cost of similar newly-constructed homes in Riverhead, the neighborhood where the house is located. That’s why this is “a major step” to address the “affordable housing crisis plaguing Long Island,” he added.

3D printing has been consistently making headlines over the past few years, slowly becoming a reality for us commoners. Companies are building houses either fully on 3D or with most of their elements made out of a printer. In Mexico, the world’s first 3D printed neighborhood is already moving forward, while Germany’s first 3D residential building is under construction.

But it’s not just housing, it can be almost anything. With the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers discovered they could print face shields and ventilator parts much faster and cheaper than with regular methods. A 3D printer even built a miniature heart, using a patient’s own cells, as well as human cartilage.

This means that whether you have the almost $300,000 to buy the house now on the market or not, you have plenty of options to choose from in the 3D world. A study a few years ago even showed that a printer can make anyone at least a 1000% return on investment over five years. So it might be time to get on the 3D printing world.

Bioprinting as a matter of the heart

A cross-disciplinary team of scientists at Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering have just brought an ambitious what-if plan to fruition. The team has created a full-size 3D bio-printed human heart model.

Yes, it is just a model but, but it realistically mimics the elasticity of cardiac tissue and could be useful for medical research.

Image credits: CMU Engineering.

Those behind this model at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) are Adam Feinberg and his team in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering.

They managed to print this artificial heart through special bioprinting with a 3D printer, using custom materials and a technique called FRESH, which stands for Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels. Their 3D printer was custom made to hold a gel support bath large enough to print at the desired size and some software changes served to maintain the speed and fidelity of the print.

“FRESH 3D printing uses a needle to inject bioink into a bath of soft hydrogel,” said the school’s news story about the heart model, “which supports the object as it prints. Once finished, a simple application of heat causes the hydrogel to melt away, leaving only the 3D bioprinted object,” the researchers explain.

Jumping the hurdles

The work is a culmination of several years of research. Machine Design talked about what was new and what was not new about the Carnegie Mellon marker: Full-size organ models have been replicated before, using 3D printing techniques, but the materials had a tendency of not being ideal for replicating the “feel” and mechanical properties of natural tissue.

Now, this team was focused on getting the right materials to get the artificial structure to behave just like the real thing. They were aware that soft, tissue-like materials, such as silicone rubbers, often collapsed when 3D printed in air, making it difficult to reproduce large, complex structures.

They used something called alginate, a naturally occurring polymer, as the alginate could mimic the elastic modulus of cardiac tissues. Alginate is a soft, natural polymer, with properties similar to real cardiac tissue. They placed sutures in a piece of alginate to hold even when stretched. This suggested how surgeons could practice procedures on a heart model made from the alginate material.

That is just one potential application. Although hospitals might have facilities for 3D printing models of a patient’s body, the tissues and organs can currently only be modeled in hard plastic or rubber. The Carnegie model would enable manipulation in ways similar to a real heart.

Crticial steps taken

Feinberg is interested in working with surgeons and clinicians to fine-tune the technique and ensure readiness for a hospital setting.

The paper discussing their work has been published in ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering. Lead author Eman Mirdamadi recognized that major hurdles still exist in bioprinting a full-sized functional human heart, but this is a foundational groundwork—and showing immediate applications for realistic surgical simulation.

Feinberg concludes:

“While we have not yet achieved printing a whole adult-sized functional heart, what we have done is really taken critical steps along that path.”

3D printing may be worse for your lungs than assumed

A new study sheds light on the potential health costs of 3D printing.

Image credits Lutz Peter.

There’s little room for debate around the merits of 3D printing. That’s reflected in their growing use in homes, schools, and other settings where people spend a lot of time. But a new paper comes to warn that the printers aren’t harmless. The printing process can affect air quality and public health through the airborne particles it generates — these are small enough to enter deep into the lungs, the authors warn.

Printing problems

“To date, the general public has little awareness of possible exposures to 3D printer emissions,” states Peter Byrley, Ph.D., EPA, lead author.

“A potential societal benefit of this research is to increase public awareness of 3D printer emissions, and of the possibly higher susceptibility of children”.

Such printers have served an invaluable role during the pandemic, when institutions as well as individuals turned to them for face shields, respirator parts, or other equipment needed (but scarce) in face of COVID-19. However, the authors argue that it’s precisely due this rise in use that we should understand the health effects of 3D printing.

Materials used in the printing process can vary greatly, depending on the model, and include thermoplastics, metals, nanomaterials, polymers, or volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds. Each print can take up to several hours to complete (depending on the printer and the size of the item). During this time, a wide range of chemical by-products and particles can seep into the environment, especially indoors, according to the authors.

The paper provides a meta-analysis of existing literature on the subject. The team reports finding evidence that ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) emissions generated during the printing process can affect human and rat lung cells it comes into contact with. The same study showed that these particles cause “moderate” toxicity in human lung cells and “minimal” toxicity in rats. Two recent studies from the EPA also showed that emissions from a 3D printer filament extruder (a device used to create printer filaments), both vapor and small particles, are similar to those found in the ABS study. They also report that these emissions can lead to deposition of particles in the lung tissues of individuals aged nine and younger (based on computer simulations).

Another cited study examines the ecological cost of 3D printing. The accessibility, convenience, and scale of 3D printing today is a direct contributor to plastic pollution, it explains. Nanoparticles generated from the breakdown of 3D printed materials were further found to become biologically available when exposed to the environment (meaning an animal or plant can absorb them into their tissues). It establishes a Matrix Release Factor (MRF), describing the percentage of nanoparticles that came out of the plastic when eaten by fish, which can help us gauge how much of them are released when a product breaks down or is consumed.

“This research can help set regulations on how much nanomaterial fillers can be added to particular consumer products, based on their MRF value,” states Sipe. “The data can help determine how much plastic and/or nano-filled products release contaminants into the environment or the human body.”

These risks are manageable, but the only way we can protect ourselves is to know they exist. The authors are confident that 3D printing will continue to enjoy wider popularity in the future, so more in-depth research is needed to uncover all sides of the story in order to make the most of it while keeping people and the environment healthy and safe.

The findings will be presented at the Society for Risk Analysis 2020 Annual Meeting.

World’s smallest boat could sail inside of a human hair

Credit: Leiden University.

Scientists at Leiden University in the Netherlands flexed their 3D printing muscles to the extreme by shaping the smallest floating object in the world.

The tiny boat is a 30-micrometer replica of Benchy the tugboat — a jolly 3D printing test design — as an homage to one of the most popular 3D printer tests objects.

According to the Dutch engineers, the tiny boat is so small it could float down the interior of a human hair shaft. It can even propel itself thanks to a few platinum molecules that react with hydrogen peroxide, so it essentially boasts a full sailing system.

To print the most intricate part of the microscopic tugboat — the cockpit — the researchers focused a laser beam onto a droplet that hardened right at the focal point. By moving the laser beam in a highly precise and controlled way, they could perform the desired nanometric cuts.

The team at Leiden University embarked on this project as part of a grander research project investigating microswimmers, which are essentially any small particles moving in fluids. These include bacteria and sperm.

“3D Benchy is a structure that has been designed to test macroscopic 3D printers because it has several challenging features, and it was natural to also try it at the micrometer scale,” researcher Daniela Kraft told Gizmodo. “In addition, making a swimming micrometer-sized boat is fun.”

The findings were described in the journal Soft Matter.

Researchers develop a method to 3D print buildings from any local soil

New research is making it possible to print buildings from the ground up — quite literally.

An experimental structure created with the method.
Image credits Aayushi Bajpayee.

Most construction materials today require intense processing to create. This makes them both relatively expensive, and quite damaging from an environmental point of view. But new research could make buildings dirt-cheap, by allowing their construction from actual dirt.

The building process involves a 3D printer creating the load-bearing structure out of soil (this is the part of the building that keeps it up), with the final touches to be completed from other locally-available material.

Ashes to ashes, dirt to houses

“The environmental impact of the construction industry is an issue of growing concern,” says Sarbajit Banerjee, Ph.D., the project’s principal investigator.

“Some researchers have turned to additive manufacturing, or building structures layer by layer, which is often done with a 3D printer. That advance has begun to transform this sector in terms of reducing waste, but the materials used in the process need to be sustainable as well.”

Concrete is the most widely used construction material today, but it has a high environmental footprint and requires a lot of energy and specialized installations to produce. Concrete manufacturing is responsible for around 7% of global CO2 emissions, the team notes.

Using any locally-available soils for construction would thus help ease the burden both on the environment and our savings accounts. This method has been employed for a huge part of human history, but mixing in modern technology with this ancient method can help take it to new heights.

“Our thought was to turn the clock back and find a way to adapt materials from our own backyards as a potential replacement for concrete,” says Aayushi Bajpayee, a graduate student in Banerjee’s lab at Texas A&M University.

The process uses soil as the ‘ink’ in a 3D printer (called ‘additive manufacturing’) to create the skeleton of a building. Banerjee and Bajpayee also say that the process could one day be used to create settlements on the moon or even Mars.

The team started working from soil samples collected from one of their backyards and developed a binder that would hold it together but still keep it flowy enough to go through the printer. Soils are far from uniform, and their composition can vary wildly from place to place. Because of this, the binder (or ‘additive’) is described as a chemical ‘toolkit’ designed to interact with soils of every chemistry.

The team first tested their approach by building small test structures in the shape of cubes measuring two inches on each side. Then, they tested whether the material can adequately bear weight without collapsing — for this step, they “zippered” the soil mixture into microscopic layers on the structure’s surface to prevent it from absorbing water and expanding. Using this method, the material could bear twice the load of an un-zippered one, and was deemed resilient enough. The team is still working on improving the strength of the mixture, planning to get it as close to concrete as possible.

The researchers will present their results today at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall 2020 Virtual Meeting & Expo.

A 3D adapter can turn a snorkeling mask into a non-invasive ventilator

If there’s one thing that is in high-demand now across the globe, that’s ventilators. More than 400.000 cases of the virus have left many hospitals without stocks of this key medical equipment, which can help in artificial breathing when lungs fail to do it naturally.

Credit Issinova

Nevertheless, when resources lack, creativity and innovation rise, and that’s what has happened here. Influenced by a large number of cases in their country, a group of Italian engineers has developed and tested a 3D-printed adapter that can turn a snorkeling mask into a ventilator.

This is their second innovative creation since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy. The engineers previously visited a hospital that didn’t have sufficient ventilator valves and, using a 3D printer, developed new ones and printed them in just a few hours. Following that first experience, the team was contacted by the former head physician of the Gardone Valtrompia Hospital.

“He shared with us an idea to address the possible shortage of hospital C-PAP masks, which is emerging as a concrete problem linked to the spread of COVID-19: an emergency ventilator mask,” they said.

The first step was finding a company that produced snorkeling masks and agree on a partnership. That was Decathlon, a French sporting goods company. Once they had the product, the engineers dismantled and studied it to check how to use a valve to connect the mask with the ventilator.

Other designers had already created 3D printable adapters to transform similar snorkeling masks into medical ones. The innovation by the Italian engineers was that the adapter could be modified for the mask to be connected as a ventilator, a key resource needed during the outbreak.

Once they had the new product, they tested it at the Chiari Hospital by connecting it to the ventilator body, proving it worked successfully. They also tested it on a patient with good results. Nevertheless, the invention should only be used in an emergency situation, the engineers warned.

“We are reiterating that the idea is designed for healthcare facilities and wants to help in realization of an emergency mask in the case of a full-blown difficult situation, where it is not possible to find official healthcare supplies. Neither the mask nor the link is certified and their use is subject to a situation of mandatory need,” they said.

The engineers patented the valve that connects the mask and the ventilator so as to avoid speculation on the price. The patent is free as the objective is “that all hospitals in need could use it if necessary,” they said. They also shared the file required to create the valve with a 3D printer, which they claim is easy to manufacture, on their website.

This means that any healthcare facility that needs ventilators can purchase the Decathlon mask and then produce the valve in any local 3D printing facility. “Our initiative is totally non-profit, we will not obtain any royalties on the idea of the link, nor on the sales of Decathlon masks,” they said.

Similar initiatives can be seen in other parts of the world, using 3D printers. In Spain, also severely affected by the outbreak, a group of engineers and doctors have partnered up to develop low-cost respirators and print as much personal protective equipment as possible.

We’re one step closer to fully-functioning artificial blood vessels

A new study describes how researchers 3D-printed fully-functional blood vessels, and how they can be implanted into living hosts.

Blood vessel with a reduced cross-sectional area.
Image via Wikimedia.

The blood vessels were printed from a bioink containing human smooth muscle cells (harvested from an aorta) and endothelial (lining) cells from an umbilical vein. They have the same dual-layer architecture of natural blood vessels and outperform existing engineered tissues, the team explains.

The findings bring us closer to 3D-printed artificial blood vessels that can be used as grafts in clinical use.

Bloody constructs

“The artificial blood vessel is an essential tool to save patients suffering from cardiovascular disease,” said lead author Ge Gao. “There are products in clinical use made from polymers, but they don’t have living cells and vascular functions.”

“We wanted to tissue-engineer a living, functional blood vessel graft.”

The researchers explain that the small-diameter blood vessels we’ve been able to construct so far were fragile things, and prone to blockages. The crux of the issue was that these vessels relied on a very simplified version of the extracellular matrix — the material between cells which keeps our bodies together — most usually in the form of collagen-based bioinks. A natural blood vessel, however, isn’t just collagen; it also boasts a wide range of biomolecules that support the growth and activity of vascular cells.

To address these issues, the team developed a bioink starting from native tissues that preserves this extracellular complexity. Its use allows for faster development of vascular tissues and results in blood vessels with better strength and anti-thrombosis (i.e. anti-clogging) function. After fabrication, the team matured the vessels in the lab to reach specific wall thickness, cellular alignment, burst pressure, tensile strength, and contraction ability — basically making the printed vessels mimic the functions of natural blood vessels.

Afterward, the printed blood vessels were grafted as abdominal aortas into six rats. Over the following six weeks, the rats’ fibroblasts (a type of cell in the extracellular matrix) formed a layer of connective tissue on the surface of the implants — which integrated the vessels into pre-existing living tissues.

The team says they plan to continue developing the process in order to make the blood vessels stronger, with the goal of making them similar to human coronary arteries in physical properties. They also want to perform a long-term evaluation of vascular grafts to see how they evolve as they integrate into the implanted environment.

The paper “Tissue-engineering of vascular grafts containing endothelium and smooth-muscle using triple-coaxial cell printing” has been published in the journal Applied Physics Reviews.

3D-printed coral can help save reefs and the fish that live there

New research is looking into 3D-printed corals as a possible cure for the world’s ailing reefs and the animals that call them home.

Close-up of a brain coral.
Image via Pixabay.

Coral reefs aren’t faring very well anywhere on Earth right now. Environmental shocks such as climate shifts, more acidic waters, and pollution are pushing corals — often beyond their limit. As the reefs wither and die, the animals that live there find themselves essentially homeless.

New research at the University of Delaware (UD) is looking into the use of 3D-printed corals as a potential fix.

Hit print

“If the fish on a reef won’t use the 3D-printed coral models as a habitat in the wild, it could place them at greater risk for predation by other larger species,” said Danielle Dixson, an associate professor in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment’s School of Marine Science and Policy and the paper’s second author.

“If coral larvae won’t settle on 3D-printed materials, they can’t help to rebuild the reef.”

The team has shown that 3D-printed objects don’t impact the behavior of damselfish (a species closely associated with coral reefs) or the survival of a settling stony coral. Fish showed no preference for any of the materials used to print the corals, which suggests that biodegradable materials (such as cornstarch) could successfully be employed in lieu of plastics. This latter finding is particularly relevant in the context of today’s discussion on the role of plastic pollution in the ocean.

The team worked with damselfish and mustard hill coral larvae, which they presented with a coral skeleton and four 3D-printed corals (made from different materials). These artificial corals were replicas of an actual coral skeleton (that the team took around 50 images of using a smartphone). All four filaments used were low-cost, the researchers explain, and widely available; they included polyester and two biodegradable materials, one made from cornstarch and the other from cornstarch and stainless steel powder.

Blue-green damselfish (Chromis viridis) are a common coral-associated fish found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, while mustard hill corals (Porites astreoides) are a stony coral found in the Caribbean Sea, the team explains. They placed the fish into a tank alongside the corals in a ‘cafeteria-style’ choice experiment — basically, they sat around to see if the fishes preferred one habitat/coral over another. Behavioral analysis showed that the fishes didn’t have a preference between the native coral skeleton and the 3D-printed ones. The fishes’ activity levels (such as frequency of movement and the total distance they swam in the tank) also stayed constant regardless of the habitat they were provided with.

UD alumnus Emily Ruhl, the study’s first author, says that it was surprising to see the fishes behaving the same near a natural or artificial coral skeleton. Furthermore, mustard hill coral larvae settled more readily on 3D-printed coral surfaces than on no settlement surface (as would be the case in a reef destroyed by a storm, for example).

“I thought the natural skeleton would elicit more docile behavior compared to 3D-printed objects,” said Ruhl, who earned her master’s degree in marine biosciences at UD in 2018. “But then we realized the small reef fish didn’t care if the habitat was artificial or calcium carbonate, they just wanted protection.”

When coral reefs degrade, they often lose structural complexity. Reef-associated fish, which tend to spend all of their lives in the reef, rely on this complexity for food and shelter — simpler reefs just don’t give them enough opportunities. Without the proper habitat, they don’t grow to their full size. This mechanism leaves the reef open to an overgrowth of algae (on which larger fish feed) that can destroy the whole reef.

“Offering 3D-printed habitats is a way to provide reef organisms a structural starter kit that can become part of the landscape as fish and coral build their homes around the artificial coral,” Dixson said. “And since the materials we selected are biodegradable, the artificial coral would naturally degrade over time as the live coral overgrows it.”

In addition, 3D-printed coral models can be useful as a control for fish-related laboratory studies, enabling researchers to provide each fish an identical habitat, something that is currently not possible with the use of coral skeletons.

The paper “3D printed objects do not impact the behavior of a coral-associated damselfish or survival of a settling stony coral” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Researchers 3D print a miniature heart — using a patient’s own cells

The heart is still too small to be useful, but this represents an important proof of concept, researchers say.

We’ve all seen how 3D printers can be used to produce a wide variety of materials, but human body parts weren’t exactly on the expectation list — and a heart is probably the last thing you’d expect. But in a new study, researchers from Tell Aviv University have done just that: they’ve 3D printed a miniature version of a human heart, using material from a patient.

“It’s completely biocompatible and matches the patient,” said Tal Dvir, the professor who directed the project.This greatly reduces the chances of rejection inside the body,

Dvir and colleagues harvested fatty tissue from a patient, then separated it into cellular and non-cellular components. The cellular components were then reprogrammed into stem cells and subsequently turned into heart tissue cells. The non-cellular cells were also processed and used as a gel that served as the bio-ink for printing.

The process was lengthy. A massive 3D printer sent a small stream of this bio-ink to print, and the cells were then left to mature for another month. For now, the heart is very small and doesn’t “work” — but this is still an important breakthrough. Previously, only simple tissues had been printed.

A simplified diagram of the heart-printing process. Image credits: Tel Aviv University.

“We need to develop the printed heart further,” Dvir said. “The cells need to form a pumping ability; they can currently contract, but we need them to work together. Our hope is that we will succeed and prove our method’s efficacy and usefulness.”

The potential for this invention is tremendous. Cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death in industrialized nations, and heart transplants face a number of hurdles, ranging from the lack of donors to challenging surgery and potential rejection. This would not only ensure that there is always a donor (the patient himself) but also eliminate the risk of rejection.

A human-sized heart might take a whole day to print and would require billions of cells, compared to the millions used to print these mini-hearts, Dvir said. This is still just the very first stage of the project, but it’s still a promising one. Even though it will be a long time before functional hearts can be produced thusly, researchers are also considering printing “patches” to address localized heart problems.

“Perhaps by printing patches we can improve or take out diseased areas in the heart and replace them with something that works,” Dvir concluded.

The study “3D Printing of Personalized Thick and Perfusable Cardiac Patches and Hearts” has been published in Advanced Science.

3D printers weave wearable electronics into clothing

Is there anything 3D printers can’t do?

Smart textile under twisting and folding, showing its high flexibility. Image credits: Yingying Zhang.

Wearable electronics have drawn tremendous attention in recent years due to the potential they offer — but technical difficulties have made it hard to practically embed these systems into clothes. In a new paper, a team of Chinese researchers describe a technique to use 3D printers to weave electronics into clothes and enable them to harvest biomechanical energy from human motion.

“We used a 3D printer equipped with a home-made coaxial nozzle to directly print fibers on textiles and demonstrated that it could be used for energy-management purposes,” says senior author Yingying Zhang, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Tsinghua University. “We proposed a coaxial nozzle approach because single-axial nozzles allow only one ink to be printed at a time, thus greatly restricting the compositional diversity and the function designing of printed architectures.”

At the core of the technique are two “inks”: one is a carbon nanotube solution which served as a conductive core, and the second one consisted of silkworm silk, used for insulating the conductive fibers (this could also be replaced with other materials to ensure flexibility, biocompatibility, and waterproofness, researchers say). Two injection syringes filled with the inks were connected to the coaxial nozzle, which was fixed on the 3D printer. These syringes were used to draw different types of patterns (researchers tested this with Chinese characters meaning ‘printing’, the English word ‘silk’, and a picture of a pigeon.

Image credits: Yingying Zhang.

This isn’t the first attempt at sewing electrical components into fabrics — but what makes this study significant is that it’s much quicker, versatile, and scalable. Using a 3D printer means you can build all sorts of versatile features and designs with relative ease. The nozzle is also compatible with existing 3D printers, which researchers hope will encourage more people to use this type of technology.

“We hope this work will inspire others to build other types of 3D printer nozzles that can generate designs with rich compositional and structural diversity and even to integrate multiple co-axial nozzles that can produce multifunctional E-textiles in one-step,” Zhang says. “Our long-term goal is to design flexible, wearable hybrid materials and electronics with unprecedented properties and, at the same time, develop new techniques for the practical production of smart wearable systems with integrated functions, such as sensing, actuating, communicating, and so on.”

Wearable technology can be used to monitor a user’s health, as well as physical activity, and record the data automatically.

Journal Reference: Matter, Zhang et al.: “Printable Smart Pattern for Multifunctional Energy-Management E-Textile” https://tinyurl.com/y6pru2f8



n: Strings of a polymerised liquid crystal act as the strings of collagen in the body. The amorphous calcium phosphate (in grey) enters the strings and begins to crystallise, creating the artificial bone-like material. ​ ​Illustration: Anand Kumar Rajasekharan/Chalmers University of Technology.

Scientists learn how bone grows atom by atom, which could lead to better osteoporosis treatment

Swedish researchers were looking to create artificial bone, but in doing so they may have come across something more important. By analyzing the process of their bone imitation, the researchers were able to study how our bones grow at an atomic level, morphing from an unstructured mass into a perfectly arranged structure.

n: Strings of a polymerised liquid crystal act as the strings of collagen in the body. The amorphous calcium phosphate (in grey) enters the strings and begins to crystallise, creating the artificial bone-like material. ​ ​Illustration: Anand Kumar Rajasekharan/Chalmers University of Technology.

Strings of a polymerized liquid crystal act as the strings of collagen in the body. The amorphous calcium phosphate (in grey) enters the strings and begins to crystallize, creating the artificial bone-like material. Illustration: Anand Kumar Rajasekharan/Chalmers University of Technology.

It’s a well-established fact that our bones grow in stages, but what exactly goes on in each of these stages had previously been a mystery. Martin Andersson, Professor in Materials Chemistry at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, along with colleagues, developed a method for creating artificial bone using 3-D printing. Once this technology is fully developed, the team hopes to create nature-mimicking implants that might replace metal and plastic implants currently in use.

However, while Andersson and colleagues were printing bones, they couldn’t help but notice that their process was extremely similar to the environment that living tissue grows in. Using electron microscopes, the team studied how material turned from an amorphous mush into an orderly structure that resembles bone, all at the atomic level.

“A wonderful thing with this project is that it demonstrates how applied and fundamental research go hand in hand. Our project was originally focused on the creation of an artificial biomaterial, but the material turned out to be a great tool to study bone building processes. We first imitated nature, by creating an artificial copy. Then, we used that copy to go back and study nature,” Andersson said in a statement.

Diagram describing a possible bone mineralisation mechanism. Credit: Nature Communications.

Diagram describing a possible bone mineralisation mechanism. Credit: Nature Communications.

Writing in the journal Nature Communicationsthe Swedish researchers explain how bone mineralization first starts with strings of the protein collagen — the smallest structural building block in the skeleton. Cells then send spherical particles called vesicles to the site, where they bind between the collagen strings. There, the vesicles, which are made of calcium phosphate, transform from an amorphous mass into an ordered crystalline structure.

The crystallization process is not biological but rather purely physical, following the laws of thermodynamics. The calcium phosphate molecules are drawn to where the energy level is the lowest, and therefore where there is a more stable state.

These findings could prove highly useful, not only in manufacturing nature-mimicking bones for implants but also for treating bone diseases.

“Our results could be significant for the treatment of bone disease such as osteoporosis, which today is a common illness, especially among older women. Osteoporosis is when there is an imbalance between how fast bones break down and are being reformed, which are natural processes in the body,” said Martin Andersson.

Drugs that seek to address this imbalance may be improved thanks to this study’s newfound knowledge, the authors conclude.

Fluorescent 3d-printed tissue.

New 3D-printing process creates ligaments, tendons for transplant — paves the way for replacement organs

New research is merging 3D printing with human stem cells to provide on-demand tissues such as ligaments and tendons for transplant.

Fluorescent 3d-printed tissue.

Fluorescent cells the team printed to showcase their new process.
Image credits Robby Bowles / University of Utah College of Engineering.

It’s a tough life, and sometimes, our bodies pay the price. Such tolls, however, needn’t be permanent — and, new research from the University of Utah is making it easier than ever before to repair the damage. The team’s efforts pave the way to 3D-printed human tissues such as ligaments and tendons that can be used from transplant.

Break a leg! We can fix it later

“This is a technique in a very controlled manner to create a pattern and organizations of cells that you couldn’t create with previous technologies,” says University of Utah biomedical engineering assistant professor and paper co-author Robby Bowles.

“It allows us to very specifically put cells where we want them.”

Patients that require replacement tissues currently also need to supply it themselves from another part of the body or receive it from a cadaver. Such procedures carry their own risks, involve quite a lot of discomfort on the part of the patient, and (especially in the case of cadaver-sourced tissues) may be very off-putting for certain people. There’s also the risk that replacement tissue is of poor quality, either due to wear and tear or complications in the material’s retrieval from the body.

In an effort to work around these issues and reduce the total number of surgeries a potential patient would have to go through to receive a replacement, Bowles’ team worked on developing a 3D-printing method which can produce viable biological tissues.

Development of the process took two years to complete, the team reports. It relies on stem cells harvested from a patient’s body fat, which are printed on a hydrogel layer to form a tendon or ligament. These cells are grown in vitro (in the lab) in a culture and then implanted. According to the team, the technique can be used to create replacements for connective tissue such as ligaments, tendons, or cartilage — even complex structures such as spinal disks. Such disks are very complex structures that include bony interfaces (transitional areas), and must be reconstructed completely for a successful transplant, they add.

“[The 3D-printing process] will allow patients to receive replacement tissues without additional surgeries and without having to harvest tissue from other sites, which has its own source of problems,” says Bowles.

Much of the research went exactly into tackling complex structures such as spinal disks. Connective tissue is never ‘pure’ — it always includes multiple and complex patterns of interweaving cells. The tendons that flank your muscles, for example, must have transition zones to gradually shift into and attach to adjacent tissues, be them bone or muscle.

Bowles and his co-author David Ede, a former biomedical engineering master’s student at Utah, teamed up with Salt Lake City-based company, Carterra, Inc., which develops microfluidic devices for medicine. They developed their printer starting from a piece of hardware that Carterra typically uses to print antibodies for cancer screening applications. Bowles’ team developed a new printhead for the device that can lay down human cells with a high degree of control. The printhead, Bowles adds, could be adapted for any kind of 3-D printer.

As a proof of concept, the duo printed genetically-modified, fluorescent cells, so they could analyze the structure of the final tissue.

Bowles, with a background in musculoskeletal research, said the technology currently is designed for creating ligaments, tendons and spinal discs. However, he excitedly adds that “it literally could be used for any type of tissue engineering application”. Eventually, the team hopes their technique can be used to print out whole organs, which would be a major breakthrough for patients on transplant waiting lists the world over.

The paper “Microfluidic Flow Cell Array for Controlled Cell Deposition in Engineered Musculoskeletal Tissues” has been published in the journal Tissue Engineering Part C: Methods.