A stereolithography technology that allows the rapid creation of three dimensional (3D) biological structures out of biocompatible hydrogels and cells could one day enable surgeons and clinicians to simply print out biological tissues for use in regenerative medicine, researchers claim. Developed by nanoengineers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), the new technique, known as dynamic optical projection stereolithography (DOPsL), effectively allows complex nanostructures such as blood vessels or potentially new heart tissue, for example, to be printed out of biocompatible materials in just seconds. While the potential biomedical applications are manifold, the UCSD team led by Shaochen Chen, Ph.D., suggests that in the near term the technology will at least allow scientists to generate better 3D culture systems for growing and studying cells in the laboratory.

Described in the journal Advanced Materials, the biofabrication technique uses a computer projection system and minutely controlled micromirrors to direct light on a selected area of a solution containing photosensitive biopolymers and cells. Photo-induced solidification is effected one layer at a time but continuously, to build up the desired 3D structure. While stereolithography is already used to print out large objects, such as car parts or tools, the major breakthrough has been developing a process capable of effecting the micro- and nanoscale resolution necessary to print out biological tissues.

Dr. Chen’s group has been developing the biofabrication process with the support of $1.5 million in NIH funding, secured back in 2010. Continued R&D will also benefit from expertise at the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), which is being established with $30 million in Federal funding pledged just last month. Led by the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining, the NAMII will focus on developing and commercializing 3D printing (i.e., additive manufacturing), and provide the infrastructure needed to support new additive manufacturing technologies and products for a range of industries.

The aim is to bridge the gap between basic research and product development for additive manufacturing, and provide shared assets to help companies, particularly small manufacturers, access cutting-edge capabilities and equipment. The $30 million Federal investment will be more than matched by another $40 million from participating companies, as well as academic and nonprofit organizations. 

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