Researchers at IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia fabricated an artificial device reproducing a 1:1 scale model of the blood-brain barrier, the anatomical and functional structure that protects the central nervous system from external substances such as contaminants but also drugs injected intravenously into the body. The device, which is a combination of artificial and biological components, will be fundamental for studying new therapeutic strategies to overcome the blood-brain barrier and treat brain diseases.

The device is a microfluidic device that combines artificial components made with 3-D advanced microfabrication techniques (two-photon lithography) and biological ones (the cells covering blood vessels). Researchers hope to use it to understand the interaction of drugs or drug delivery nano-vectors to overcome the blood-brain barrier and target the central nervous system. The main goal is to find new therapeutic strategies for the treatment of brain cancer and brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.

The microprinting was realized with advanced 3D printing technologies that make use of a laser that scans through a liquid photopolymer and solidifies the material locally and, layer by layer, builds complex 3D objects with submicron resolution. Using this manufacturing technique, researchers were able to engineer an accurate real-scale model of the blood-brain barrier made from a photopolymer resin. Mimicking the brain microcapillaries, the model consists of a microfluidic system of 50 parallel cylindrical channels connected by junctions and featuring pores on the cylinder walls.

After the fabrication of the complex scaffold-like polymer structure, endothelial cells were cultivated around the porous microcapillary system. Covering the 3D printed structure, the cells built a biological barrier resulting in a biohybrid system that resembles its natural model. The device is a few millimeters big and fluids can pass through it at the same pressure as blood in brain vessels.