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A team of researchers from Houston Methodist Research Institute in Texas, looking for a new solution to 'print' live human cells, found their inspiration in the most unlikely of all sources - Ancient Chinese woodblocks! Called Bloc-Printing, the invention which was led by the organization's nanomedicine faculty member Lidong Qin, comprises of a silicone mold that resembles the ancient printing blocks.
The researchers begin by pouring liquid filled with cells grown in a petri dish, onto the mold - Similar to how the ancient Chinese poured ink onto a block. Just like the ink, the fluid flows across the surface and gets drawn in through strategically placed holes. When the mold is lifted, the cells stay firm in the desired configuration, something that has never been possible before.
This is a radical breakthrough for researchers because it allows them to study the precise and complex signals of cell-to-cell communication, with utmost accuracy. What's even more encouraging is that almost all the cells that are 'printed' using this new technique, survive. This is a big improvement over the existing ink-jet bio-printing method, which destroys between 30-50% of cells during the creation process.
Also, since the mold can be made in any shape desired, Bloc-Printing can be used to generate cells for all kinds of purposes, ranging from tissue regeneration to cancer research and even, new drug development.
One of the most exciting potential uses of this new invention is to create mini-brain cell networks. This is currently not feasible because the printing technique used does not allow for cells to be arranged exactly how they appear in the human body. In fact, to test the invention, the scientists were able to 'print' live brain cells on a grid which meant they could form connections, similar to how they do inside the brain.
According to Dr. Qin, who published the research in the February 6th edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, another advantage is the cost. While he doesn't know the exact price, he figures it cannot be much, given that the bloc costs just a dollar to make and the only other things required, are a syringe and petri dish. This compares favorably to the bio-printing cost of the existing ink-jet nozzle technique, which can cost researchers anywhere from $20,000 USD to $100,000 USD.
Since the Bloc-Printing method results in 2-dimensional cells, the technique cannot be used to create organs. However, its simplicity and low cost means that it will be accessible to researchers worldwide, allowing for many more medical breakthroughs. And who knows, some day scientists will also be able to incorporate 3D technology to the technique and be able to Bloc-Print organs!
Resources: gigaom.com, news.yahoo.com,livescience.com