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Scientists have developed a printing technique that uses natural cells and molecules found in tissues to recreate complex biological structures.

These structures are embedded in an ink which is similar to their native environment and opens the possibility to make them behave as they would in the body. It allows the researchers to observe how cells work within these environments and potentially enables them to study biological scenarios such as where cancer grows or how immune cells interact with other cells, which could lead to the development of new drugs.

The technique, developed by researchers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) in the UK combines molecular self-assembly, building structures by assembling molecules like Lego pieces, with additive manufacturing, similar to 3D printing, to recreate the complex structures.

The structures can be manufactured under digital control and with molecular precision which also enables the researchers to create constructs that mimic body parts or tissues for tissue engineering or regenerative medicine. "The technique opens the possibility to design and create biological scenarios like complex and specific cell environments, which can be used in different fields such as tissue engineering by creating constructs that resemble tissues or in vitro models that can be used to test drugs in a more efficient manner," said Alvaro Mata, from QMUL.

The technique integrates the micro- and macroscopic control of structural features that printing provides with the molecular and nano-scale control enabled by self-assembly. Due to this, it addresses a major need in 3D printing were commonly used printing inks have limited capacity to actively stimulate the cells that are being printed.

"This method enables the possibility to build 3D structures by printing multiple types of biomolecules capable of assembling into well-defined structures at multiple scales," said Clara Hedegaard, PhD student at QMUL.

"Because of this, the self-assembling ink provides an opportunity to control the chemical and physical properties during and after printing, which can be tuned to stimulate cell behaviour," said Hedegaard.
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