The first entirely 3D-printed organ-on-a-chip with integrated sensing has been built by a fully automated digital manufacturing procedure. The 3D-printed heart-on-a-chip can be quickly fabricated and customized, allowing researchers to easily collect reliable data for short-term and longterm studies.

The heart-on-a-chip is made entirely using multimaterial 3D printing in a single automated procedure, integrating six custom printing inks at micrometer resolution. (Lori K. Sanders and Alex D. Valentine, Lewis Lab/Harvard University)

This approach to manufacturing may one day allow researchers to rapidly design organs on chips that match the properties of a specific disease or even an individual patient's cells.

Organs on chips mimic the structure and function of native tissue, and have emerged as an alternative to traditional animal testing. The microphysiological systems that mimic the microarchitecture and functions of lungs, hearts, tongues, and intestines were developed.

The fabrication and data collection for organs on chips is expensive and laborious. Currently, these devices are built in cleanrooms using a complex, multi-step lithographic process, and collecting data requires microscopy or high-speed cameras.

This work addressed these two challenges simultaneously via digital manufacturing. By developing new printable inks for multi-material 3D printing, the researchers automated the fabrication process while increasing the complexity of the devices.

Six different inks were developed that integrated soft strain sensors within the microarchitecture of the tissue. In a single, continuous procedure, those materials were 3D-printed into a cardiac microphysiological device — a heart-on-a-chip — with integrated sensors.

The chip contains multiple wells, each with separate tissues and integrated sensors, allowing researchers to study many engineered cardiac tissues at once. To demonstrate the efficacy of the device, the team performed drug studies and longer-term studies of gradual changes in the contractile stress of engineered cardiac tissues that can occur over the course of several weeks. The integrated sensors allow researchers to continuously collect data while tissues mature and improve their contractility. Similarly, they will enable studies of gradual effects of chronic exposure to toxins.

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