Aston University is to get a state-of-the-art Quantum X bio 3D printer following a grant of £612,176 from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

  • The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has awarded £612,176 to a team led by Professor Rhein Parri.
  • The Quantum X bio, from CELLINK and Nanoscribe, will enable researchers to print cell cultures and structures to a resolution of 200 nm.
  • Being able to study cells in this way will help researchers gain a better understanding of how the body works, including the brain, liver and eyes.

The team which received the grant is led by Professor Rhein Parri from Aston Pharmacy School, who applied in response to BBSRC’s ALERT 2022 funding call for mid-range equipment for biosciences research.

The Quantum X bio printer, a joint product of BICO companies Nanoscribe and CELLINK, will allow the researchers to print cells in orientations similar to those found in organs in the body, such as the brain and liver. The structures and orientations of cells, like neurons in the brain, influence how they interact and connect, so being able to print cells and tissues in 3D will enable researchers to study them better and develop a greater understanding of how the body works.

The Quantum X bio makes use of 2-photon polymerisation (2PP) to print 3D structures extremely precisely. In the 2PP polymerisation process, a laser is focused on a photosensitive liquid that polymerises into a solid where the laser beam hits it. The laser moves around within the liquid in three dimensions to produce the desired solid structure. Any remaining liquid is washed off and the structure can then be used. The Quantum X bio uses biocompatible polymers to print structures containing features down to sizes of 200 nm, opening up many new lines of research.

Other Aston University researchers involved in the grant proposal alongside Professor Parri included Professor Roslyn Bill, Dr Emma Shepherd, Dr Philip Kitchen and Dr John Simms in the School of Biosciences, and Dr Craig Russell and Nathan Suray in Aston Pharmacy School. Paul Gretton and Professor Edik Rafailov in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences were also part of the team.

Professor Parri will lead a team to create 3D printed structures to support the growth of networks of human brain cells called astrocytes. In standard 2D cultures, astrocytes form haphazard networks, but with the bioprinter, the researchers will be able to create more ordered networks like those found in the brain. The team will be able to study astrocytes’ functions in brain functions like sleep and synaptic plasticity, a mechanism thought to be important for memory and learning.

Professor Bill will study the blood-brain barrier. When it is disrupted, pathogens, neurotoxins and other substances can enter the brain, causing immune and inflammatory responses. Disruption of the barrier is more common as people age and may lead to brain degeneration. Professor Bill and her team will effectively ‘print’ a blood-brain barrier model to allow better study of its critical functions.

Dr Shepherd will print soft 3D models of a type of liver cell called sinusoidal endothelial cells (LSEC), which form a barrier between the liver and blood cells, containing pores which allows the passage of substances like oxygen and metabolites, known as fenestration. Ageing and certain diseases can cause the loss of this vital fenestration, impairing liver function. With the models, Dr Shepherd will be able to study the biology of fenestration.

Dr Russell plans to develop a model for drug delivery to the eye, with focus on the cornea. The 2PP process will allow him to replicate the layers of the cornea, effectively a ‘cornea on a chip’ including tissue layers and the tear film, to study how drugs are transported.

Dr Simms will study a type of protein on cell surfaces called G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) which detect molecules outside cells in the body and activate cellular responses within the cells. GPCRs have recently been shown to also respond to mechanical stimuli, such as magnetism, a function known as mechano-sensitivity. GPCRs are an important target for medicines and Dr Simms will use the Quantum X bio to print bespoke cell walls with GPCRs embedded within to study mechano-sensitivity, potentially opening up routes to the discovery of new medicines.

Professor Parri expects the Quantum X bio to foster research collaborations, bringing together scientific communities, such as in cell biology, organ-on-a-chip and microfluidics, to share knowledge. Its installation will complement and enhance Aston University’s expertise in 3D printing of the Advanced Prototype Facility in the College of Engineering.

Professor Parri said: “This new bioprinter will transform our ability at Aston University and the wider West Midlands to conduct 3D printing and make new discoveries in basic biological and tissue engineering research.”

The Quantum X bio is the first bioprinter of its kind to be installed by Nanoscribe in the UK, and will be made available to the wider research community of the Midlands Innovation Universities of Birmingham, Loughborough, Nottingham, Leicester and Warwick. Aston University is preparing a room with a controlled environment to house the printer, and associated cell culture facilities. The bioprinter is expected to be in use from April 2024.