Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth are working on a new method that uses inkjet printers to print living cells in 3D.
"It's a milestone that we can print all types of cells onto a surface with an ink-jet printer without them dying, even stem cells," said Paul Calvert, a materials scientist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. "Doing this successfully in three dimensions, however, is like going from a black-and-white to a full-color."
Calvert, who details the state of cell-printing research in Friday's issue of the journal Science, said 3-D techniques could help unravel the mysteries of cell-to-cell communication and, perhaps in the distant future, manufacture human organs from scratch.
To build cell-printing machines, Calvert said he walks into electronics stores, buys an inkjet printer cartridge and fits it onto a software-controlled robot back at his lab.
"What you see is a familiar cartridge sitting in the middle of this machine," Calvert told LiveScience. But instead of controlling differently colored inks, however, Calvert said the machine controls different cultures of cells fed into the cartridge nozzle.
In spite of the fact that inkjet cartridges use a tiny boiling plate to spit out tiny droplets of ink, Calvert said that cell cultures aren't harmed during the process.
"The heating duration is too short," he said, noting that about 99 percent of cells come through the process fine. "The cells are about three-quarters smaller than the opening, so they can survive being shot out of an inkjet cartridge."