Studying the Human Brain Using 3D Printing Technology

Study published in Biomaterials wins Elsevier’s Atlas award

New York, NY, 21 March, 2016

In a study published in Biomaterials, a team of researchers from Australia and the US has come up with a way of printing brain structures in 3D so they can grow nerve cells to mimic a real brain. Their work has been selected by an independent, international Advisory Board to be given the Elsevier Atlas award.

At two percent of our body weight, and made up of 100 billion nerve cells, the brain is a hugely complex organ. Scientists can study the brain using animal models, but in recent years much work has gone in to seeking alternatives, with the support of organizations like the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs).

One such alternative is creating models of brains in the lab: growing brain cells in a structural material that lets scientists observe what happens in the tissue. Until now, it has only been possible to do this in two dimensions, producing sheets of cells.

Professor Gordon Wallace and his colleagues from the University of Wollongong, Australia and the University of Texas at Dallas, US have come up with a way of creating layered 3D structures that mimic the brain more closely, using 3D printing.

“The advent of 3D printing in recent years and the ability to create structures containing materials, and even living cells, gives us that ability to start to probe some very fundamental questions,” said Prof. Wallace. “Looking at what’s going on in 3D – in a similar structure to the real human brain – will give us a much better idea of the biology behind neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and help researchers working on ways to treat them.”

The interdisciplinary team consisting of clinicians, biologists, materials scientists and chemists used gellan gum to create the new 3D structures. Gellan gum is a substance made by the bacterium Sphingomonas elodea, which is often used as a gelling agent in microbiology labs. They created a bio-ink using the gellan gum, which they combined with brain cells. The gellan gum helped the brain cells grow well and function as a network – much like in a real brain.

Prof. Kam W. Leong, Editor-in-Chief of Biomaterials, explained the significance of the research, “Inaccessibility to the human brain renders molecular studies challenging, if not impossible. A brain-like structure constructed of human cells would be invaluable for applications ranging from pathway analysis to disease modeling and drug discovery. This excellent proof-of-concept study suggests the possibility of fabricating a human brain-like structure in the future using bioprinting.”

The article is “3D printing of layered brain-like structures using peptide modified gellan gum substrates”, by Rodrigo Lozano, Leo Stevens, Brianna C. Thompson, Kerry J. Gilmore, Robert Gorkin III, Elise M. Stewart, Marc in het Panhuis, Mario Romero-Ortega and Gordon G. Wallace (doi: 10.1016/j.biomaterials.2015.07.022). The article appears in Biomaterials, 67 (October 2015) pages 264-273, published by Elsevier.

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Notes for Editors
Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request, contact newsroom@elsevier.com.

About Biomaterials
Biomaterials is an international journal covering the science and clinical applications of biomaterials. Biomaterials are substances that have been engineered as components of living systems, and can be used in therapeutics and diagnostics. The journal publishes articles about all aspects of biomaterials, from synthesizing polymers to designing drugs and analysing the way the body responds to biomaterials.

About Atlas, Research for a better world
Science impacts everyone's world. With over 1,800 journals publishing articles from across science, technology and health, our mission is to share some of the stories that matter. Each month Atlas will showcase research that can (or already has) significantly impact people's lives around the world and we hope that bringing wider attention to this research will go some way to ensuring its successful implementation.

With so many worthy articles published the tough job of selecting a single article to be awarded "The Atlas" each month comes down to an Advisory Board. The winning research is presented alongside interviews, expert opinions, multimedia and much more on the Atlas website: www.elsevier.com/atlas

About Elsevier
Elsevier is a world-leading provider of information solutions that enhance the performance of science, health, and technology professionals, empowering them to make better decisions, deliver better care, and sometimes make groundbreaking discoveries that advance the boundaries of knowledge and human progress. Elsevier provides web-based, digital solutions — among them ScienceDirect, Scopus, Research Intelligence and ClinicalKey— and publishes over 2,500 journals, including The Lancet and Cell, and more than 35,000 book titles, including a number of iconic reference works. Elsevier is part of RELX Group, a world-leading provider of information and analytics for professional and business customers across industries. www.elsevier.com

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