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New 3D printing approach makes cell-scale lattice structures

A new way of making scaffolding for biological cultures could make it possible to grow cells that are highly uniform in shape and size and potentially with certain functions. The new approach uses an extremely fine-scale form of 3D printing, using an electric field to draw fibers one-tenth the width of a human hair. Many functions of a cell can be influenced by its microenvironment, so a scaffold that allows precise control over that environment may open new possibilities for culturing cells with particular characteristics, for research or eventually even medical use. While ordinary 3D printing produces filaments as fine as 150 microns (millionths of a meter), the researchers say it's possible to get fibers down to widths of 10 microns by adding a strong electric field between the nozzle extruding the fiber and the stage on which the structure is being printed. The technique is called melt electrowriting. The need for tighter control over cell function is a major roadblock for getting tissue engineering products to the clinic. Any steps to tighten specifications on the scaffold, and thereby also tighten the variance in cell phenotype, would lead to more solutions.

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