NC State lab’s 3D printed hydrogels could be a step to one day developing synthetic organs

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Just days after graduating with his PhD, Austin Williams showed just what helped him earn his doctoral degree. The accomplishment could end up helping millions of people.

Inside a lab at North Carolina State University, 3D printers are producing a hydrogel mesh or dressing to cover an injury or wound.

“As medicine becomes more customizable, more personable, 3D printing is going to be more applied because you can 3D print custom shapes and designs and custom materials to fit the patient,” Williams said.

Seaweed and algae are commonly used as thickening agents in wound dressings. The team at N.C. State has figured out the perfect combination of the same natural materials, or hydrogels, that will hold up to a 3D printer.

Professor Orlin Velev oversees the program.

“You want to be able to make dressings. You want to be able to protect wounds. You want to be able to make restorative surgery,” Velev said.

“Water-based materials can be soft and brittle, but these homocomposite materials, soft fibrillar alginate particles inside a medium of alginate, are really two hydrogels in one. One is a particle hydrogel and one is a molecular hydrogel. So, it is very strong, you can control the strength, the stiffness, and the flexibility of this material. You can adjust its density.”

Cells have shown to like the 3D printed gel and are able to replicate and survive. New cells can be injected into the formula to help healing, which means this discovery could one day be used to help produce new organs to replace diseased ones.

“What people are doing is getting types of hydrogels, filling them with cells, 3D printing them into shapes where the cells can then proliferate to make this kind of synthetic material that can hopefully one day be implanted into diseased individuals,” Williams said.

The same concept could one day be used in robotics as well as to create low-calorie food.

The team’s work has been published in the journal Nature Communications. It’s co-authored by Williams, Velev, Sangchul Roh, Simeon Stoyanov and Professor Lilian Hsiao.

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