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Growing artificial tissue using a 3D printer

Aleksandr Ovsianikov from TU Wien has been awarded his second ERC grant. He is developing methods for artificially creating biological tissue.

Portrait of Aleksandr Ovsianikov

Ass.Prof. Aleksandr Ovsianikov

It is one of the great hopes of modern medicine: to create tissue artificially in order to heal wounds or perhaps, one day, even to recreate entire organs. Thanks to new materials and modern methods for processing living cells, this goal is increasingly close to becoming a reality. Aleksandr Ovsianikov from the Institute of Materials Science and Technology is developing new technology for creating tissue, which combines the key advantages of existing techniques for the first time. Using a 3D printer, minute structures can be created containing tissue components that are each made up of many cells.

Aleksandr Ovsianikov has now been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant for this development – one of the most lucrative research grants in Europe. It is already Ovsianikov’s second ERC grant - he received an ERC Starting Grant back in 2012.

A 3D framework for living cells

“Up to now, there have been two completely different methods for the artificial creation of tissue,” explains Aleksandr Ovsianikov. “Either you use prefabricated three-dimensional structures as a framework that the cells should then attach themselves to, or you create layers of cells or spherical clusters of many cells first, which you then use as components to build a larger piece of tissue.”
Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages: a prefabricated framework like the kind that can be produced using high-precision 3D printers offers mechanical stability and defines the desired shape, but the cells often only move through this kind of framework very slowly in order to build the tissue. The framework must degrade gradually in a controlled manner, at the speed at which the cells replace it with their own ‘extracellular matrix’, which then provides stability in place of the framework – that is also not easy to achieve.

If, on the other hand, you initially create larger layers or balls consisting of many cells and then combine them, the cell density is much greater from the start, which saves a lot of time. However, the mechanical stability is lower and the cells can easily be destroyed.

These two methods are now being combined at TU Wien: “We want to use robust, porous 3D frameworks that contain multi-cellular components right from the start,” explains Ovsianikov. “This means that we have a large number of cells straight away and do not have to wait until the cells have penetrated the structure. The structure provides stability, but at the same time is also porous enough for the multi-cellular components to grow together in order to rapidly form a tissue.”

The technology for two-photon lithography, a method for producing high-precision minuscule structures in a 3D printer that has advanced enormously at TU Wien over the years, is crucial to this new process. The Faculty of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering is working closely with the Faculty of Technical Chemistry on this project.

Aleksandr Ovsianikov

Aleksandr Ovsianikov received his ERC Starting Grant in 2012 for his research into embedding living cells in a 3D matrix. The project is soon to be successfully completed, with work also under way on the follow-up project for which he received the ERC Consolidator Grant. The European Research Council (ERC) awards this grant to support young researchers who are already well positioned internationally and want to push forward with new, potentially groundbreaking ideas. Aleksandr Ovsianikov is the first scientist at TU Wien to receive two ERC grants.

Originally from Lithuania, Aleksandr Ovsianikov completed his dissertation in the Nanotechnology Department at Laser Zentrum Hannover in 2008. Since 2010, he has been conducting research as part of the Additive Manufacturing Technologies (AMT) group at the Institute of Materials Science and Technology, where he is setting up the new ‘bioprinting’ research area.