Using Lego to 3D-print human flesh

A group of researchers at Cardiff University recently figured out a way to build a 3D-printer out of LEGOs that can churn out human flesh. I swear it's not as creepy as it sounds. As they explain in a recent post on The Conversation, there are many reasons why biologists and medical professionals might need to procure human tissue samples. But the process of the obtaining those samples has historically been complicated for various reasons. While 3D-printing presents a potentially viable solution, it's also an expensive one:

The emergence of 3D bioprinting has provided a potential solution to the difficulty in sourcing tissue samples. This technology involves loading "bio-ink", which contains living cells, into a cartridge. That, in turn, is then loaded into the bioprinter. Once programmed, the bioprinter prints the cell-laden bio-ink to form 3D structures that aim to replicate the complex formation of biological tissue. 

Unlike two-dimensional cell cultures grown on plates, which most of us still rely on for large parts of our research, bioprinters enable scientists to grow cells in three dimensions. And that better replicates the intricate architecture of human biology. In other words, bioprinting technology allows researchers to make more comparable models for studying healthy and diseased tissue.

The problem is that these machines come at an eye-wateringly high cost of some tens, even hundreds, of thousands of pounds. Few research teams, including ours, can stretch their budgets to cover that kind of expenditure, no matter how groundbreaking the technology promises to be.

And so, in search of a more affordable method of bioprinting human flesh, they naturally turned to LEGO Mindstorms.

Still in its infancy, our bioprinter, which cost £500 to build, achieves the required level of precision to produce delicate biological material. The way it does this is remarkably simple. 

A nozzle ejects a gel-like substance, which is full of cells, onto a dish. At the heart of the device is a mini Lego Mindstorms computer. This device moves the dish backwards and forwards and side to side while moving the nozzle up and down mechanically as it extrudes the gel full of cells. These programmable movements build up layers of the cells to replicate the 3D structure of human tissue, layer by layer.

Our bioprinter is now being used to create layers of skin cells, working towards a full-scale skin model. 

Cool! Also kind of kind of creepy. But also cool! They've even shared the free blueprints, if you want to try it yourself.

We built a human-skin printer from Lego and we want every lab to use our blueprint [Sion Coulman and Jo Blankley, Cardiff University / Inkl via The Conversation]