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Scientists Build Machine From Lego That Can Grow Human Skin

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In biological research, sourcing human tissue samples has always been a formidable challenge. Ethically obtained through organ donation or surgical procedures, these samples are becoming increasingly elusive for scientists. The scarcity isn’t merely due to a limited supply but also the specific size and type required for various projects. Amidst these challenges, an innovative solution has emerged from an unexpected source: Lego. Researchers have ingeniously harnessed the versatility of this popular toy to construct a low-cost bioprinter, offering a promising solution to the tissue sample dilemma.

The Dilemma Of Sourcing Human Tissue


The ethical procurement of human tissue samples, predominantly through organ donation and surgical procedures, is a cornerstone of many biological investigations. However, the increasing demand for these samples and their limited availability have posed significant challenges for the scientific community. Not only is there a finite supply, but the specific size and type of tissue samples required for myriad projects at any given time further complicates the sourcing process. This scarcity has driven researchers to seek alternative methods to meet their needs.

The challenges extend beyond mere availability. Ethical considerations play a pivotal role in the sourcing process, ensuring that samples are obtained without causing harm or infringing on personal rights. Yet, even when these ethical standards are met, the specific requirements of research projects often make it difficult to find a perfect match. This conundrum has left scientists grappling with delays and compromises, hindering the progress of crucial research.

The Promise Of 3D Bioprinting


Enter 3D bioprinting, a groundbreaking technology that promises to alleviate the challenges of tissue sourcing. At its core, this technology involves using “bio-ink”, a substance loaded with living cells. This bio-ink is then loaded into a cartridge and placed into the bioprinter. Once programmed, the bioprinter meticulously prints the cell-laden bio-ink, forming intricate 3D structures that closely mimic the complex formation of biological tissue.

The advantages of 3D bioprinting over traditional methods are manifold. Unlike the two-dimensional cell cultures grown on plates, which have been the mainstay for many researchers, bioprinters enable the growth of cells in three dimensions. This allows for a more accurate representation of human biology and provides a platform for scientists to create models that are far more comparable for studying healthy and diseased tissue. In essence, bioprinting technology is revolutionizing the way researchers approach tissue studies.

The High Cost Of Bioprinting Machines


However, as with many groundbreaking technologies, there’s a catch. The cost of these bioprinting machines can be staggering, often running into tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds. Such exorbitant prices place these machines out of reach for many research teams, regardless of the revolutionary potential they offer. Budget constraints, especially in academic research, mean that many teams cannot justify or afford such a significant expenditure.

This financial barrier has led to a palpable frustration within the scientific community. On the one hand, there’s a technology that promises to address a longstanding challenge; on the other, its prohibitive cost makes it inaccessible to many. This dichotomy has spurred researchers to think outside the box, seeking innovative solutions that can harness the power of bioprinting without the associated financial burden. And this quest for affordability without compromising on quality led to the ingenious use of Lego.

The Lego Solution


Lego, a toy cherished by many for its simplicity and versatility, emerged as an unlikely hero in this narrative. Researchers pondered the feasibility of constructing an affordable 3D bioprinter using Lego. The toy’s attributes were undeniable: it’s cost-effective, manufactured with high precision, and its standardized parts are accessible globally. Moreover, Lego’s track record in innovation is commendable, having been previously employed to create traditional 3D printers.

The idea was audacious. Could a toy, primarily designed for recreational purposes, be repurposed to address a complex scientific challenge? The underlying principle was to leverage the precision and versatility of Lego to engineer a bioprinter capable of printing soft biological material. The goal was clear: create an affordable machine that met rigorous scientific research standards.

Engineering Challenges And Solutions


 Embarking on this ambitious project, the team faced many engineering challenges. The primary concern was whether a Lego-based printer, traditionally used for printing solid 3D structures from plastic, could be adapted to print delicate biological material. The output had to be precise, reliable, and stable to be deemed useful for lab research. The stakes were high, and there was little room for error.

Undeterred, the team set up shop in a corner of their Cardiff lab. They began the construction process using standard Lego bricks, the mechanical sub-brand Lego Mindstorms, and a commonly found lab pump. A multidisciplinary team comprising engineers and biologists collaborated closely. Their combined expertise was instrumental in designing, engineering, constructing, and programming the bioprinter, ensuring it met the exacting standards.

The Bioprinter In Action

The result was nothing short of remarkable. For a mere £500 (US$624), the team had a functioning bioprinter that achieved the required precision to produce delicate biological material. Its operation was simple: a nozzle would eject a gel-like substance filled with cells onto a dish. At the heart of this marvel was a mini Lego Mindstorms computer, which controlled the dish’s movements and the nozzle’s extrusion process.

These programmable movements facilitated the layer-by-layer construction of cells, replicating the 3D structure of human tissue. The bioprinter’s versatility was evident in its ability to create layers of skin cells and its potential for modification. Using different nozzles, the team could print various cell types, introducing a range of complexities into the tissue samples.

Applications And Potential 

The implications of this innovation were profound. The bioprinter offered an exciting opportunity to simulate both healthy and diseased skin. This capability was invaluable for researchers, allowing them to study existing treatments and design novel therapies for various skin ailments. The machine’s adaptability meant that it could be tailored to address many research questions, making it an indispensable tool for the scientific community.

Furthermore, the bioprinter’s design was not static. Its modular nature meant it could be continually refined and adapted to meet evolving research needs. Whether introducing new cell types or tweaking the printing process, the Lego-based bioprinter was poised to advance our understanding of skin biology.

The Future Of The Lego Bioprinter 

Looking ahead, the bioprinter’s potential seemed boundless. Not only could it provide an accurate model of human skin, but it could also introduce diseased cells to these models. This capability would enable researchers to study the genesis of skin conditions, the interactions between healthy and diseased cells, and the progression of various diseases. Such insights were invaluable in the quest to develop effective treatments.

The team’s commitment to open science was evident in their decision to share their innovation with the global community. They provided detailed instructions on constructing the Lego 3D bioprinter, ensuring that labs worldwide could replicate this marvel. In an era of increasingly constrained research funding, the team’s gesture was a beacon of hope. By offering an open-source, affordable, and accessible alternative to a pivotal piece of equipment, they were leveling the playing field, ensuring that budgetary constraints did not stifle groundbreaking research.

The Bottom Line

In the ever-evolving landscape of scientific research, the Lego bioprinter stands out as a beacon of innovation. Born out of necessity and crafted with ingenuity, it addresses a pressing challenge, offering a cost-effective solution without compromising quality. Its creation is a testament to the power of interdisciplinary collaboration and the boundless potential of thinking outside the box. As researchers continue to harness its capabilities, the bioprinter promises to revolutionize our understanding of skin biology, paving the way for novel treatments and therapies. In the annals of scientific achievements, the Lego bioprinter will undoubtedly be remembered as a game-changer, a testament to human ingenuity and the relentless pursuit of knowledge.