May 29, 2018 | By Thomas

Researchers from the University of Illinois have built a new kind of 3D printer capable of printing complex biological structures out of sugar.

Sugar printing can be tricky as it often have problems with sugar burning or crystallizing. The Illinois team found that the isomalt, the type of sugar alcohol used to make throat lozenges, is less prone to burning or crystallization.

To prevent sugar burning or crystallizing, they built a 3D printer that has the right combination of mechanical details to print stable isomalt structures – the right temperature, pressure to extrude it from the nozzle, diameter of the nozzle, and speed to move it so it prints smoothly to ensure the isomalt hardened into a stable structure.

A 3D printed bunny made of isomalt sugar mixed with a glowing red dye used in biomedical imaging. Photo by Troy Comi

The 3D printer uses a process called free-form printing to create intricate structures from isomalt. Free-form means that as the nozzle moves through space, the melted material hardens, leaving a sturdy structure behind – like drawing in midair. Once printed, the water-soluble, biodegradable glassy sugar structure could be used in biomedical engineering, cancer research and device manufacturing.

See a video of a bridge model being printed.

“This is a great way to create shapes around which we can pattern soft materials or grow cells and tissue, then the scaffold dissolves away,” said Rohit Bhargava, a professor of bioengineering and director of the Cancer Center at Illinois in a statement.

“For example, one possible application is to grow tissue or study tumors in the lab. Cell cultures are usually done on flat dishes. That gives us some characteristics of the cells, but it’s not a very dynamic way to look at how a system actually functions in the body. In the body, there are well-defined shapes, and shape and function are very closely related.”

Illinois professor Rohit Bhargava, left, and Ph.D. graduate Matthew Gelber

Free-form 3D printing allows researchers to make thin tubes with circular cross-sections that could not be made with conventional polymer 3D printing, Bhargava said. When the sugar dissolves, it leaves a series of connected cylindrical tubes and tunnels that can be used like blood vessels to transport nutrients in tissue or to create channels in microfluidic devices.

The team is working to develop special coatings for the scaffolds to control when and how fast the structures dissolve. They hope that one day the technology could be used to 3D print human organs from scratch.



Posted in 3D Printer



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