3D printing isn't all about making guns and toys — some researchers are using it to make real medical advances. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Oxford has managed to create a 3D printer that can produce synthetic tissue using just water and oil.
3D printers have been produced in the past that can splurge out human cells, and they've even been used to make crude approximations of entire organs. But the researchers from Oxford decided to start at a more basic level than that. Essentally, cells are pretty much just balls of liquid encapsulated by a membrane. So they developed a system which creates tiny spheres of fluid and wraps them up in a double layer of lipids. Ed Yong explains how it works:
The team's printer has two nozzles that exude incredibly small droplets, each one just 65 picoliters — 65 billionths of a milliliter — in volume. The nozzles "print" the drops into oil at the rate of one per second, laying them down with extreme precision. As each drop settles, it picks up a layer of lipids from the surrounding oil, and the layers of neighbouring drops unite to create a double-layered membrane, just like in our cells.
The printer can deposit one drop a second, and can so far create structures which use up to 35,000 of the things (see video below). Apparently, the results have the consistency of brains, fat or other soft tissues, and last for weeks. Applications are, of course, another matter — but the researchers think that they could use the technique to create human-friendly materials which could be used to deliver drugs in clever ways, or perhaps even replace human tissue. And that's got to be better than making guns.