May 13, 2015 | By Simon

When it was first released, the BioBot 3D bioprinter was met with an overwhelmingly-positive response...and for good reason.  The 3D printer, which was designed by University of Pennsylvania graduates Ricardo Solorzano, 25, and Daniel Cabrera, 22, is far from your typical FDM desktop 3D printer; rather, the bioprinter is capable of 3D printing human tissue and could eventually be used to print functional organs for those in need of transplants.  

Unsurprisingly, Cabrera and Solorzano have described their BioBots startup as “the future of regenerative medicine” and have a goal of becoming the “PC of bioprinters”.  Well, the budding entrepreneurs can now count Michigan-based school Michigan Tech as one of their fans now.

The school recently acquired their very first BioBot to fabricate synthesized nerve tissue. The key is developing the right "bioink," or printable tissue. The nano-material could be used to help regenerate damaged nerves for patients with injuries - including those with sensitive spinal cord injuries.   

The current BioBot model that was acquired by the school is a 12-inch by 12-inch desktop device that retails for $5,000, which is significantly cheaper than larger pieces of equipment seen in full-scale research labs that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. “There are other tissue-engineering devices, but to really accelerate development they must be smaller, most cost-effective to manufacture, easier to use and more accessible,” added Cabrera.

Located in the Nanomedicine and Nanoelectronics Laboratory at Michigan Tech, the printer was funded with help from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Biomaterials Program based on the school’s efforts towards studying cellulose nanocrystals as biomaterials.

“Cellulose nanocrystals with extremely good mechanical properties are highly desirable for bioprinting of scaffolds that can be used for live tissues,” said Reza Shahbazian-Yassar, an Associate Professor at the school whose highly-interdisciplinary background on cellulose nanocrystals as biomaterials helped inspire the lab’s new 3D printing research direction.  

“We wanted to target a big issue,” added Tolou Shokuhfar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering and director of the school’s Nanomedicine and Nanoelectronics Laboratory. Last year, she was awarded a CAREER grant from NSF for her work using graphene in biomaterials research.

“We are born with all the nerve cells we’ll ever have, and damaged nerves don’t heal very well.”

With the team’s background in both bioengineering and mechanical engineering, it appears that they have the ideal foundation in place for making strides in the area of nerve cell printing.  

"We can pursue nerve regeneration research with a simpler printer set-up," said Shayan Shafiee, a PhD student who is currently working with Shokuhfar. Shafiee says the first step is to synthesize a biocompatible polymer that is syrupy — but not too thick — that can be printed. That means Shafiee and Shokuhfar have to create their own materials to print with.

"Graphene is a wonder material," she said. "And it has very good electrical conductivity properties."

"Our work always comes back to the question, is it printable or not?" said Shafiee. Shafiee and Shokuhfar see these issues as mechanical obstacles that can be overcome.

“This is based on fractal geometry, these are similar to our vertebrae—the idea is to let a nerve pass through the holes … it’s like other 3D printers, you need a design to work from.”

Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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