Cheap 3D Printers Make Cheaper(er) Bioprinters

In case you missed it, prices on 3D printers have hit an all time low. The hardware is largely standardized and the software is almost exclusively open source, so it makes sense that eventually somebody was going to start knocking these things out cheap. There are now many 3D printers available for less than $300 USD, and a few are even dipping under the $200 mark. Realistically, this is about as cheap as these machines are ever going to get.

A startup by the name of 3D Cultures has recently started capitalizing on the availability of these inexpensive high-precision three dimensional motion platforms by co-opting an existing consumer 3D printer to deliver their Tissue Scribe bioprinter. Some may call this cheating, but we see it for what it really is: a huge savings in cost and R&D time. Why design your own kinematics when somebody else has already done it for you?

Despite the C-3PO level of disguise that 3D Cultures attempted by putting stickers over the original logo, the donor machine for the Tissue Scribe is very obviously a Monoprice Select Mini, the undisputed king of beginner printers. The big change of course comes from the removal of the extruder and hotend, which has been replaced with an apparatus that can heat and depress a standard syringe.

At the very basic level, bioprinting is performed in the exact same way as normal 3D printing; it’s merely a difference in materials. While 3D printing uses molten plastic, bioprinting is done with organic materials like algae or collagen. In the Tissue Scribe, the traditional 3D printer hotend has been replaced with a syringe full of the organic material to be printed which is slowly pushed down by a NEMA 17 stepper motor and 8mm leadscrew.

The hotend heating element and thermistor that once were used to melt plastic are still here, but now handle warming the metal frame used to hold the syringe. In theory these changes would have only required some tweaks to the firmware calibration to get working. Frankly, it makes perfect sense, and is certainly a much easier to pull off than some of the earlier attempts at homebrew biological printers we’ve seen.

We won’t comment on the Tissue Scribe’s price point of $999 USD except to say that in the field of bioprinters, that’s pocket change. Still, it seems inevitable that somebody will build and document their own bolt-on biological extruder now that 3D Cultures has shown how simple it really is, so they may find themselves undercut in the near future.

If all this talk of hot extruded collagen has got you interested, we’ve seen some excellent resources on the emerging field of bioprinting that will probably be right up your alley.

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Printing Soft Body Tissue

If you are like us, you tend to do your 3D printing with plastic or maybe–if you are lucky enough to have access to an expensive printer–metal. [Adam Feinberg] and his team at Carnegie Mellon print with flesh. Well, sort of. Printing biomaterials is a burgeoning research area. However, printing material that is like soft tissue has been challenging. In a recent paper, [Feinberg] and company outline a method called FRESH. FRESH uses a modified MakerBot or Printrbot Jr. printer to deposit hydrogel into a gelatin slurry support bath. The gelatin holds the shape of the object until printing is complete, at which point it can be removed with heat. If you don’t want to wade through the jargon in the actual paper, the journal Science has a good overview (and see their video below).

The gelatin is mixed with calcium chloride and gelled for 12 hours at low temperature. It was then turned into a slurry using an off-the-shelf consumer-grade blender. A centrifuge was used to remove most of the soluble gelatin. Printing inks were made with materials like collagen and fibrin. The FRESH process actually uses liquid  ink that gels in the gelatin.

The printer uses an open source syringe extruder found on the NIH 3D print exchange (they never say exactly  which one, though and we had trouble matching it from the pictures). In true hacker fashion, the printer prints its own syringe extruder using the stock one from ABS and PLA plastic. Then you simply replace the standard extruder with the newly printed one (reusing the stock stepper motor).

The paper describes printing items including a model of a 5-day-old embryonic chick heart, an artery, and a miniature human brain model. Another team of researchers in Florida have a similar system, as well.

We’ve talked about bioprinting before and even mentioned how to make your own inkjet-based bioprinter. The FRESH method looks like it is in reach of the hacker’s 3D printing workshop. We cringe to think what you will print when you can finally print body parts.

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MRRF: 3D Bioprinting


There were a few keynotes at this year’s Midwest RepRap festival, and somewhat surprisingly most of the talks weren’t given by the people responsible for designing your favorite printer. One of the most interesting talks was given by [Jordan Miller], [Andy Ta], and [Steve Kelly] about the use of RepRap and other 3D printing technologies in biotechnology and tissue engineering. Yep, in 50 years when you need a vital organ printed, this is where it’ll come from.

[Jordan] got his start with tissue engineering and 3D printing with his work in printing three-dimensional sugar lattices that could be embedded in a culture medium and then dissolved. The holes left over from the sugar became the vasculature and capillaries that feed a cell culture. The astonishing success of his project and the maker culture prompted him and others to start the Advanced Manufacturing Research Institute to bring young makers into the scientific community. It’s a program hosted by Rice University and has seen an amazing amount of success in both research and getting makers into scientific pursuits.

One of these young makers is [Andy Ta]. An economics major, [Andy] first heard of the maker and RepRap community a few years ago and bought a MakerBot Cupcake. This was a terrible printer, but it did get him involved in the community, hosting build workshops, and looking into 3D printing build around DLP-cured UV resin. At AMRI, [Andy] started looking at the properties of UV-cured resin, figuring out the right type of light, resin, and exposure to create a cured resin with the right properties for printing cell colonies. You can check out [Andy]’s latest work on his webzone.

[Steve Kelly] has also done some work at AMRI, but instead of the usual RepRap or DLP projector-based printers, he did work with shooting cell cultures out of an ink jet print head. His initial experiments involved simply refilling an ink jet cartridge with a bacterial colony and discovering the cells actually survived the process of being heated and shot out of a nozzle at high speed. Most ink jets printers don’t actually lay out different colors on a precise grid, making it unusable for growing cell cultures. [Steve] solved this problem with an inkjet controller shield attached to a RepRap. All of [Steve]’s work is documented on his Github.

It’s all awesome work, and the beginnings of both bioengineering based on 3D printers, and an amazing example of what amateur scientists and professional makers can do when they put their heads together. Video link below.

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Build a bioprinter from very old inkjet cartridges

This column of messages was printed with Escherichia coli. That’s the bacteria better known as E. coli which can cause so many problems if it makes its way into our food. But the relative size and the fact that this strain was engineered to glow in the dark makes it a perfect candidate for Bio Printing. We find it even more interesting that it was printed using hacked inkjet and computer parts.

There are legitimate uses for this type of technology. But this project is aimed more at getting the word out about the method and how easy it can be. For us, it’s the close look at modern inkjet print heads that was the most interesting. It turns out that common cartridges have an overly high-resolution for this to work well. In order to get so many dots in such a small area the nozzle openings end up being too small for most biological material to fit through. There is also an issue with a filter built into the silicone technology inside.

The solution was to use the InkShield to drive cartridges from very old printers. This lets the team command the cartridge with an Arduino, making it dead simple to tweak the way the material is deposited. They mounted the cartridge holder (using decades-old technology in the form of HP Deskjet 500 cartridges) on the sled of an optical drive and went from there.

Take a glance at the printer in action in the clip after the break.

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Printing organs with a 3D printer

[Jordan Miller], [Christopher Chen], and a whole bunch of other researchers at the department of bioengineering at U Penn have figured out a way to print 3D tissues using a 3D printer. In this case, a RepRap modified to print sugar.

Traditional means of constructing living 3D tissues face a problem – in a living body, there’s a whole bunch of vasculature sending Oxygen and nutrients to the interior cells. In vitro, these nutrients can’t get to the cells in the core of a mass of tissue. [Jordan], [Chris], et al. solved this problem by printing a three-dimensional sugar lattice. After encasing this lattice in a gel embedded with living cells, the sugar can be dissolved and the nutrients pumped through the now hollow capillaries in the gel.

If you have access to Nature, the full text article is available here. There’s also a great video showing off this technique after the break.

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