Researchers print cells with an inkjet printer

Printing cells creates small holes in their membranes, a quirk researchers are exploiting.

From paper to plants, printing has come a long way since Gutenberg. These days scientists and engineers can print almost anything, from bones to robots to more printers using the latest technology. But usually these techniques require an expensive, 3-D printer. Now, researchers have printed live cells with a standard inkjet printer.

The research comes from Clemson University, where not only are they printing cells onto slides – a technique that researchers have been playing with elsewhere. But what the Clemson team wanted to do was open up pores in the cell membranes. When the pores are open, researchers can put things like florescent molecules into the cells without having to inject them or otherwise damage the membrane.

"The advantage of using thermal inkjet printing to inject molecules into cells is that the technique is relatively benign to cells," the authors wrote in their paper.

There were limits, however, to the printing technology. The holes that the printer made were only 10 nanometers wide, so only things smaller than that could enter.

The Clemson team has also put together a how-to guide and video of their work. It’s over in the Journal of Visualized Experiments – the only journal that publishes every article both in words and in video.

The lab at Clemson has particular ideas about what they want to do with these cells. "We are actually interested in the cell mechanics of compressed cells. This method allows us to push on the cells and watch the response easily," said Delphine Dean in the press release.

But the applications of these printing techniques exist far beyond compressed heart cells. The advantage to printing cells rather than manually injecting them with molecules is mainly in speed. Printing can happen far faster and easier. Thousands of cells can be printed every minute. As these techniques get better and better, scientists might eventually be able to print entire organs or structures that can be implanted into humans.

Image: A fibroblast printed with the modified inkjet printer. The interior of the cell shows that the fluorescently tagged actin monomers have been incorporated. © The Journal of Visualized Experiments

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