The same attributes of 3-D printing that have revolutionized manufacturing hold promise for accelerating research in tissue engineering and diseases processes.
3-D printers deposit materials with high precision in three dimensional space. In biofabrication, they could be used to pattern biomaterials and cells to create tissue-like models, but only if researchers succeed in replicating the complexity found in biological systems. To do so, they must address a series of challenges: these include finding biomaterials that flow during printing and then stabilize rapidly, achieving biomimetic resolution of structures, and patterning channels for vasculature.
"Any technology that will give you more control over where cells and materials are will enable you to ask more interesting biological questions."Chris Highley, PhD, Assistant Professor of BME
Assistant Professor Christopher Highley is exploring ways to address these constraints by exploring classes of hydrogel biomaterials that can flow around a print head when it passes through them, but are otherwise solid. This would enable 3-D printing into materials. Due to their water content, porosity and soft consistency, hydrogels can resemble living tissue, and printing into them offers new possibilities for 3-D printing heterogeneous biomimetic structures at high resolution.
Among other projects, Highley will be collaborating with BME faculty members to develop 3-D models of vasculature. These models can help researchers study diseases of the vasculature like atherosclerosis and learn to create viable vasculature for tissue regeneration. “At UVA, I will be exploring different materials for patterning vasculature, developing systems that are flexible, easy to pattern and easy to print into,” Highley says.
Highley’s interest in biofabrication, however, is not confined to 3-D printing. “Any technology that will give you more control over where cells and materials are will enable you to ask more interesting biological questions,” he adds.
A Virginia native, Highley is happy to have secured a post at UVA, but ultimately he chose UVA because there was a critical mass of researchers who view biomanufacturing as an essential tool to advance their research. “BME faculty are looking at some really important challenges,” he says. “They appreciate the potential of biofabrication for solving them.”