A droplet network.

Droplet networks can mimic biological tissues.

Image: Oxford University/G. Villar

Last year Science by Email reported how 3D printers could print out chemicals. Now scientists from Oxford University are using 3D printing to create materials that mimic biological tissues.

Instead of trying to exactly copy cells, the group created a material that could perform as living tissue. The materials they created are called droplet networks. They consist of tens of thousands of tiny water droplets printed in tiny compartments on lipid films. Lipids are a group of organic compounds insoluble in water, including fats and waxes.

The droplet networks are stable, being able to last several weeks. Pores in the network allow electrical signal to flow through the material, mimicking nerves. The materials can also be designed so water can flow through the network by a process called osmosis, allowing the network to fold itself into particular shapes – like muscle.

The materials are still a long way off being used in living organisms. However, there are a number of potential medical applications. Synthetic tissues could be used to repair damaged organs, or to deliver drugs to specific parts of the body. One group of scientists hopes to eventually print out whole organs for transplants.

There are other potential benefits to printing out synthetic tissues. Ethical concerns about using biological tissues are removed as the materials are made from non-biological sources. The materials are also made from readily available materials, meaning that they could become quite cheap to produce.

3D printing has already been used to print chemicals, synthetic tissues plus a range of other materials. What will they print out next?

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