Jul 1, 2016 | By Benedict

Engineers at the University of Sheffield in England have developed an inkjet 3D printing method for printing silk ‘micro-rockets’, microscopic swimming devices which can be used in biological environments. The devices could be used for drug delivery or locating cancer cells.

Silkworms / Image: Fastily

Do silk rockets in flight = additive delight? A group of researchers from the Chemical and Biological Engineering department at the University of Sheffield seem to think so: their newly developed, 3D printable silk micro-rockets, which are biodegradable and harmless to human bodies, could someday be used to combat cancer. And although these microscopic “rockets” won’t be heading to the Moon any time soon, they could represent an important breakthrough for the medical world.

Microscopic swimming devices are already used in the human body and other biological environments, but are often fraught with problems. Existing devices can be expensive, difficult to manufacture, and made from materials (polystyrene beads, carbon nanotubes, metals) which require a platinum external layer (or something of the sort) to be able to swim properly. These new 3D printed silk micro-rockets, on the other hand, do not require any platinum armbands to swim through a biological system, and are much safer because of this.

To the potential ire of NASA, these tiny rockets, which measure 300 by 100 microns, actually create their own thrust, enabling them to swim through bio fluids. How? A form of inkjet 3D printing is used to deposit a solution of dissolved silk mixed with an enzyme called catalase. Layers of this solution are built up by the printer (a MicroFab drop-on-demand machine equipped with Jetlab software and four 60 μm single-nozzle print heads) which also deposits a layer of methanol. A chemical reaction between the methanol and the solution forms the rigid rocket shape of the device, trapping the enzyme within a silk lattice. The catalase then reacts with fuel molecules, producing bubbles which propel the rocket forward.

According to the researchers, using silk and a catalase enzyme is much safer than using other substances, making the device a viable option for medical uses, such as locating cancer cells and drug delivery: “By using a natural enzyme like catalase and silk which are fully biodegradable, our devices are far more biocompatible than earlier swimming devices,” said Dr Xiubo Zhao from The Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Sheffield. “The inkjet printing technique also allows us to digitally define the shape of a rocket before it's produced. This makes it a lot easier to optimise the shape in order to control the way the device swims.”

The researchers’ paper, titled 'Reactive inkjet printing of biocompatible enzyme powered silk micro-rockets,’ has been published in the journal SMALL.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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