What if we could use tiny organic muscle structures to move 3D printed scaffolding? The idea could lead to improvements in non-invasive drug delivery, and other microscopic tasks such as destroying cancer cells, or treatment of cardiovascular disease. This idea is being explored by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who are using light to control these miniature machines using genetic programming.
But how does the research team create these little genetic marvels? As usual, it starts with 3D printing. Using a Stereolithography printer or SLA for short, they create a scaffolding or skeleton like pieces that are made of polymers similar to soft contact lenses. Next they inject a muscle tissue that has been engineered from mouse cells, which wrap around the 3D printed structure like a rubber band with rings. Once completed the muscle tissue can then be controlled by light, which causes the tissue to contract or expand and allows the construct to move almost like an inch worm.
The ability to move small objects in such a manner may seem insignificant now, but the lead scientist on the project, Rashid Bashir has high hopes for the prospects. Bashir states that “Almost everything that we do in engineering is trying to replicate the beauty, intricacy, and complexity of what we find in nature”. Bashir believes that they will soon be able to place neurons inside of their constructs, which would give them a sort of programming capability for their cells. This would allow for the cells to react differently when they would come into contact with cancer cells, or to carry medicine to different parts of the body directly. Either way, 3D printing has made it possible for these tiny constructs to exist at all, and will help to further improve the capabilities of the scientific and medical world.