IT WAS a lightbulb moment that inspired an Oxford scientist to use 3D printing to make synthetic flesh.
Chemistry professor Hagan Bayley was flipping through a magazine when he spotted a story about people using the technique to create everyday objects, such as plastic cups.
He realised if he could do the same thing in his lab, it could be used to print off replacement skin tissue.
As revealed in the Oxford Mail on Saturday, his team designed a customised 3D printer which can churn out thousands of fake-flesh cells at a time.
These are made up of thousands of tiny water droplets, each coated in a thin film studded with protein pores. It mimics a living cell and can be used to help heal wounds and test new drugs.
It may sound like science fiction now but in the future, it may be possible for surgeons to use a 3D flesh printer in the operating theatre to print-off a new heart or liver for a patient.
The professor, who has netted £1m worth of investment for his university spin-out company OxSyBio, is based at the university’s chemistry research lab in Mansfield Road.
He said: “It all goes back to the Lego bricks many of us played with when we were kids.
“What this 3D printing technique does is to build something layer by layer and the bricks in this case happen to be these droplets.
“This can create materials that can replace our own cellular tissues and the 3D printer can produce several different types of cells at once.
“I was reading a magazine about people printing violins and all sorts of things and I thought this could be applied to the droplet networks that we were putting 10 or 12 of together by hand. I thought it would be fantastic to be able to print 10,000 or 20,000.
“But when we looked at commercial 3D printers they weren’t really useful for what we wanted to do.
“We wanted to handle some pretty delicate material, so we had to develop this ourselves but I was fortunate to have a very good physics graduate student who was able to construct this 3D printer from scratch, including the hardware and electronics.
“Our long-term goal is to develop a synthetic-tissue printer that a surgeon can use in the operating theatre.
“In 10 years’ time, the use of pieces of synthetic tissue will be commonplace but the fabrication of complex synthetic organs is a more distant prospect.”