It has been used to build a life-sized velociraptor, the Batmobile and a six-foot replica of the space shuttle. Now, Lego is building human skin.
Scientists from Cardiff University have used the globally-adored toy to build a 3D printer capable of creating layers of skin cells, with the hope that one day it will be able to print a full-scale skin model.
But why? Because medical research has a problem. There is a limited supply of human tissue available for study, while different projects require varying sizes and types of sample.
‘That’s why we decided to address the issue by building our own low-cost, easily accessible printer capable of creating human tissue samples using one of the world’s most popular toys,’ said the team, writing in The Conversation.
While 3D bioprinting has already been developed and used elsewhere, the cost of the machinery is prohibitively expensive for many laboratories.
‘That’s what led to us asking ourselves whether we could build our own affordable 3D bioprinter,’ they said. ‘The answer was “yes” and we decided to do so using Lego.’
The printer, created from traditional Lego bricks and its mechanical spinoff Lego Mindstorms, only costs around £500, which they say is significantly cheaper than other comparable 3D printers on the market.
Using a bio-ink containing living cells, the printer is programmed using a Lego Mindstorms computer to build up layers of cells designed to replicate the structure of human 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,’ they said.
‘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.
‘Our bioprinter is now being used to create layers of skin cells, working towards a full-scale skin model. It can also be modified by using different types of nozzles to print different types of cells, building a variety of complexities into the tissue samples.
‘It’s an exciting opportunity to imitate both healthy and diseased skin, to look at existing treatments and to design new therapies to treat various skin diseases.’
And being made from Lego, the printer is easy for other researchers to replicate.
‘We have provided details on how we built our Lego 3D bioprinter, giving clear instructions on how to reconstruct this device in any lab, anywhere in the world,’ said the team. ‘Anyone who’s ever tinkered with it will know that not only is Lego extremely cheap and versatile, but it’s also manufactured to very high precision with standardised parts that are globally accessible.
‘At a time when research funding is so squeezed, we are offering an open source, accessible and affordable alternative to a vital piece of equipment that is beyond most researchers’ budgets.’
The team hopes their developments and those of others will lead to medical advances befitting Lego’s slogan, ‘Only the best is good enough’.
‘Quite simply, we want our Lego bioprinter to enable researchers to conduct groundbreaking research,’ they said. ‘Because that will ultimately lead to a better understanding of biology and further improve human health.’
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