3D Printing Used to Form Super-Soft Structures for Making Replica Organs

Researchers are now able to replicate biological structures using a new 3D printing method. This method could be used for tissue regeneration and replica organs.


A team of researchers at Imperial College London have developed a new technique for building 3D structures using cryogenics (freezing) and 3D printing methods.

This research builds on an earlier research but is the first to develop structures that are soft enough to imitate the mechanical properties of organs like the lungs and brain. Their method, created in partnership with Kings College London, has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Being able to match the structure and softness of body tissues could lead to these structures being used in medical procedures to form scaffolds, which can serve as a template for tissue regeneration,(where damaged tissues are stimulated to regrow).

Regenerating damaged tissue by ‘seeding’ porous scaffolds with cells and stimulating them to grow allows the body to rebuild without the issues that usually impact tissue-replacing transplant procedures, such as rejection by the body.

The employment of scaffolds is becoming increasingly common and diverse in its applications, but this new method is special in that it forms super-soft scaffolds that are like the softest tissues in the human body and could help to boost this regeneration. Seeding neuronal cells particularly might have future potential, especially for those involved in the brain and spinal cord.

The researchers analyzed the 3D-printed structures by seeding them with dermal fibroblast cells, which produce connective tissue in the skin and discovered that there was effective attachment and survival.

This success, together with former research, could result in further possibilities around the growth of stem cells, which is medically exciting because of their ability to modify into various types of cells.

Furthermore, the method could be used to make replica body parts or even entire organs. These could be exceptionally useful to scientists, allowing them to perform experiments not possible on live subjects. They could even be used in medical training, substituting the need for animal bodies to practice surgery on.

At the moment we have created structures a few centimetres in size, but ideally we’d like to create a replica of a whole organ using this technique.

Zhengchu Tan, Researcher from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Imperial

The method uses solid carbon dioxide (dry ice) to quickly cool a hydrogel ink as it is extruded from a 3D printer. Once thawed, the gel formed is as soft as body tissues, but does not collapse under its own weight, which has been an issue for similar methods in the past.

Cryogenics is the novel aspect of this technology – it uses the phase change between liquid and solid to trigger polymerisation and create super soft objects that can hold their shape. This means that the technology has a wide variety of possible uses.

Dr Antonio Elia Forte, Researcher from the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial

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