Queen Mary University London
Scientists at Queen Mary University of London have created a new patterning technology that could recreate complex chemical environments. These complex environments can resemble the human body, leading to exciting possibilities for the biomaterials community.
The human body is largely made up of anisotropic, hierarchical, and mostly three-dimensional structures.
Professor Alvaro Mata, Lead Researcher
Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D printing, has seen a rapid growth over the past 20 years. The progression of the uptake of additive manufacturing technologies in various industries has been limited by barriers such as the high cost of the machines and materials, and the length of the overall 3D-printing processes.
Previous research from other departments, such as the Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, has talked about the possibilities of three-dimensional printing being made faster, more consistent, and less expensive by combining engineering and molecular science.
The ability to create complex 3D objects, without the need for specific tooling, has paved the way for the rapid development of additive manufacturing.
Dr Billy Wu, Lecturer, The Dyson School of Design Engineering, Imperial College London
The team at Queen Mary University has already been integrating multiple areas into their research, including engineering, materials science, chemistry, nanotechnology, biology, and medicine, so that they can develop these new in vitro biomimetic environments.
The new advancement in their research has given the ability to easily generate anisotropic hydrogel environments, made from functional molecules with microscale resolution. The simple method of 'printing' biological components within a hydrogel support enables the development of chemically anisotropic and hierarchical 3D environments, that could be used for drug testing and disease modelling.
The new technique is a type of 3D electrophoresis-assisted lithography, named ‘3DEAL’, for short. 3DEAL is a versatile hydrogel-patterning platform based on controlled molecular printing that enables the development of a tunable, chemically anisotropic, and hierarchical 3D environment. The new development is a cheap and simple fabrication technique, that is able to generate complex molecular patterns within soft matter such as the hydrogels.
The resolution is down to microscale and up to centimetres in depth. The research was funded by the ERC Starting Grant Strofunscaff and carried out by Professor Alvaro Mata, Professor in Biomedical Engineering & Biomaterials and Director of the Institute of Bioengineering at the university. The research has been recently published in Advanced Functional Materials.
“New ways to fabricate environments that can recreate physical and chemical features of such structures would have important implications in the way more efficient drugs are developed, or more functional tissue and organ constructs can be engineered.” added Lead Researcher Professor Alvaro Mata.
The major design feature of 3DEAL is that it uses an electrical field and a porous mask, which can be used to move and specifically localize multiple types of molecules within the hydrogels at microscale resolution and within large volumes. This capacity enables the possibility to engineer 3D hydrogel environments with spatial control of the chemical composition, which opens up opportunities to recreate scenarios such as 3D molecular gradients or patterns.
A major advantage of the technique is its robustness and cost-effectiveness. It is simple and can be used with different types of readily available hydrogels and be patterned with different types of molecules.
Gastón Primo, PhD student at Queen Mary and Co-author of the Paper
The researchers hope to create variations of the technique to enable even more complex patterning, as well as focus on specific applications in tissue engineering and relevant in vitro models for biological studies.