Enabling Futuristic Bioelectronics With Bioprinting: Beyond the Obvious

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“Bioprinting” is a well-known word now, thanks to burgeoning research papers and blogs on the theme. 3D bioprinting has been at the center point of activity and news hub, all thanks to the demonstrated potential. As more and more researchers join the bioprinting community, the promise that it brings to the table seems more realistic. When I started my research in this field five years back, I was amazed at the possibilities that bioprinting could bring to healthcare, biomedical and regenerative medicine. However, being trained as an electronics engineer, I saw something beyond the obvious. Could bioprinting help in combining two distinct fields of biology and electronics to create new avenues for healthcare? 

Figure 1: A) the bioprinted bioelectronics platform with hydrogel and silver ink. B) Optical image of printed electrical tracks within the hydrogel biomaterial and C) image showing cell attachment and proliferation in the platform.

Bioelectronics is the area, which deals with interfacing electrical devices and circuits with biological materials and species. Pacemakers, artificial prosthetics, and implantable devices belong to this class that has been around for some time. However, most of the present day bioelectronics devices use rigid electronic components, which are a mismatch for soft human tissues. This incompatibility causes issues in the long run, for example, tissues scarring and infections. The vision has been to replace the rigid electronics with flexible and if possible soft electronics. Being an electronic engineer, I saw a huge potential where bioprinting can be put to use to achieve this target. 

Figure 2: Printed electrical tracks on a biomedical plaster enabling enhanced functionality.  

I have been making small research efforts in this domain, where bioprinting is used to put down conformal electronics on biomaterials loaded with cells. The drop-on-demand bioprinting technique of microvalve is well-suited for printing low viscosity electronic conducting inks and hydrogels. This paves the way to fabricate external bioelectronic and even implantable devices that have Young’s modulus close to human tissues. The central idea is to encapsulate electronic between biomaterials that will support cell growth. Embedding electronics with biomaterials requires added functionality of biocompatibility, stability in wet environment and flexibility. Our paper “A novel 3D bioprinted flexible and biocompatible hydrogel bioelectronic platform” highlighted that bioprinting can achieve a 3D platform by printing successive layers of biomaterials and electronics. Bioprinting gives the freedom to use different nozzle sizes and control the pressure depending on the viscosity of the inks. This makes it possible to print low viscosity nanoparticle inks for electrical circuits in between layers of high viscosity biomaterials. 

Thus bioprinting functions as a novel tool for design innovation. One can, hence, see the potential of this technology other than in tissue engineering and organ fabrication. Bioprinting can well be a tool to make a new type of healthcare devices. A field that once was though a thing of future is quickly becoming reality, thanks to bioprinting. 

About the author

Shweta Agarwala is Assistant professor at Department of Engineering, Aarhus University (Denmark). Dr. Agarwala graduated in electronics engineering from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and obtained her Ph.D. in the same field from the National University of Singapore. Her research is directed towards printed electronics for flexible devices and bioelectronics. She is pioneering new routes to put electronics on unconventional surfaces to enable future generation healthcare. 

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