Catalonia researchers 3D bioprint muscle for soft robotics

A team of scientists from the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) has used 3D bioprinting to fabricate muscles for applications in soft robotics.

Samuel Sanchez, a co-author of the research and professor at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies, said, “Bio-inspired soft robotics is an exciting new discipline, as it may help us overcome the limitations of traditional robotic systems, such as flexibility, responsiveness and adaptability.”

“We’re exploring the potential of 3D bioprinting to make even better ones, because it offers speed, ease of design, shape and materials customisation and scalability options.”

3D printing muscle tissues for soft robotics application. Image via Wiley.
3D printing muscle tissue for soft robotics application. Image via Wiley.

Soft robotics

Soft robots, sometimes referred to as bio-bots, are robots which mimic the behavior of natural organisms. Soft robots are usually made with pliable materials which have adaptive characteristics, and are typically bio-actuating i.e. they respond to an external stimulus such as electricity.

In the recent IBEC study, muscle tissue bio-actuators were fabricated with the help of 3D bioprinting. Bio-actuators were made with skeletal muscle tissue aligned with myotubes, a fibrous tube made of muscle cells. The purpose of this experiment was to design cellular structures which can exert force and potentially grip, or walk along a surface.

Tania Patiño, co-author and postdoctoral researcher at IBEC, explained, “We found them [bio-actuators] to be functional and responsive, and the forces they generate can be modulated according to different requirements.”

In addition, Patiño said, “We now know much more about the fundamental mechanisms behind the adaptability of muscle-based bio-actuators, and that 3D bioprinting is successful as a rapid and cost-effective method for making them.”

Results of the stimulus response of the bio-actuators. Image via Wiley.
Results of the stimulus-response of the bio-actuators. Image via Wiley.

3D printing bioactuators

For the printing process, a biocompatible hydrogel was developed. This ensured an environment necessary for cell survival. The bioink was made with a blend of hyaluronic acid (HA), gelatin, and fibrinogen, a protein that circulates in the blood and forms a clot to stop excessive bleeding. This mixture encapsulated the myoblasts, a type of stem cells which develops into muscle tissue.

To prevent collapse due to shrinkage of the tissue, the muscle tissue was printed around posts made with polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), a class of silicone. The study states that in addition to acting as supports, the PDMS posts allowed the researchers to “to measure the force that the bio-actuator was exerting against the posts upon electrical stimulation, gaining a deeper insight into adaptability.”

Rafael Mestre, a Ph.D. student and co-author of the research, explained, “We’ve shown that this integration of biological systems into robotic devices provides them with capabilities acquired from natural systems and significantly boosts their performance,”

“It could be the key to being able to develop soft robotic devices able to grasp, walk, or perform other simple actions.”

3D bioprinted muscle with supports. Image via Wiley
3D bioprinted muscle with supports. Image via Wiley.

The research discussed in this article is titled, Force Modulation and Adaptability of 3D‐Bioprinted Biological Actuators Based on Skeletal Muscle Tissue. It was published in the Advanced Materials Technologies journal. It was jointly authored by Rafael Mestre, Tania Patiño, Xavier Barceló, Shivesh Anand, Ariadna Pérez‐Jiménez, and Samuel Sánchez.

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Featured image shows the 3D bioprinted muscle with supports. Image via Wiley.