BioBots was recently a finalist at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2015, but we wrote about them at the beginning of this year, when they were first looking for publicity. Their cause is noble: to democratize bioresearch. Targeting universities and hospitals, first up is the ever adventurous Michigan Technological University. They’ve already bought one, and are using it to explore the printing of synthesized nerve tissue. All these researchers need is the right “bioink” to make this dream a reality. 2015 is all about materials and acquisitions, this is my mantra.
Tolou Shokuhfar is the director of the In-Situ Nanomedicine and Nanoelectronics Laboratory at Michigan Tech, where she is also an assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, and an adjunct assistant professor in the Bioengineering Department and the College of Dentistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In her research with bioprinting she collaborates with fellow Michigan Tech professor Reza Shahbazian-Yassar, the Richard and Elizabeth Henes Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics. The National Science Foundation’s Biomaterials Program funded Shahbazian-Yassar’s unique and diverse research using cellulose nanocrystals as biomaterials. This research was a big inspiration for the lab’s current 3D bioprinting endeavors. Shahbazian-Yassar tells Michigan Tech News that “Cellulose nanocrystals with extremely good mechanical properties are highly desirable for bioprinting of scaffolds that can be used for live tissues.”
Nanotechnology is likely the key to developing a “bioink” material that would help regenerate damaged nerves. Shokuhfar says that the technology would be particularly beneficial for patients with spinal cord injuries. “We wanted to target a big issue, we are born with all the nerve cells we’ll ever have, and damaged nerves don’t heal very well.” And, while other institutions, like Wake Forest, have large-scale machines and advanced equipment, the Michigan Tech researchers believe they “can pursue nerve regeneration research with a simpler printer set-up.”
The 3D printing process is shockingly simple. Shayan Shafiee, Michigan Tech PhD student, demonstrated this to Michigan Tech News’ Allison Mills by opening the top of the printer’s box, reaching inside the plastic casing and pointing out a large syringe with a red jelly-like fluid. Shafiee, then, replenished the needle tipped printer, reached over to his laptop and began to print a tissue scaffold. The key is getting that red gummy looking substance just right. Holding up a petri dish of the substance and pointing out the crenulations and holes pockmarking the jelly, the researcher explained to Mills, “This is based on fractal geometry, these are similar to our vertebrae—the idea is to let a nerve pass through the holes.”
In order to make the tissues compatible with nerve cells, the researchers have to synthesize a biocompatible polymer that is both thick enough and syrupy enough to print with. Nerves work by transmitting electrical impulses to the brain and spinal cord, so whatever material is used must have a high degree of conductivity. Shokuhfar’s joint research in nanotechnology with Reza Shahbazian-Yassar has yielded an interest in the potential of graphene for biological use, which has excellent electrical conductive properties. In 2014, Shokuhfar was awarded a career grant from NSF for her research into developing graphene biomaterials.
The Michigan Tech lab is looking towards a future where in ten to twenty years we might be bioprinting everything from whole organs to nerve systems, but, for right now, they are just trying to take the first step and find a way to produce graphene-based nerve tissue using their compact desktop 3D printer. Good for MTU, good for BioBots, good for new medical procedures.