Scientists from Oxford University have developed a tissue-like printed material consisting of thousands of water droplets encased in a liquid film. They've essentially created printable artificial tissue — and it could someday be used to replace or supplement cells found inside our bodies.

Indeed, the potential for this technology is considerable. These 'droplet networks' could eventually be used to deliver drugs to previously inaccessible locations inside the body and replace damaged tissue. They could be made to interact and interface with real tissue, or be used as tissue engineering substrates. And interestingly, because they can take on unorthodox shapes, entirely new nanoscale biological functions could be created altogether.

Moreover, because these networks are synthetic, they lack a genome and cannot replicate, thus avoiding many of the problems associated with other approaches, like when using pluripotent stem cells.

Watch 3D-printed synthetic tissue react like the real thing

Each droplet is about 50 microns in diameter, but lead researcher Gabriel Villar suspects that they can eventually be made smaller. Currently, the team's custom-build 3D printer can create networks of up to 35,000 droplets.

Looking to the future, the researchers are confident that they'll be able to create significantly larger networks and experiments with over 50 different kinds of configurations. Their current experiment, which now appears in Science, only looked into two.

Depending on the configuration of the droplets, the network can orient and fold itself into different shapes — like the petals of a flower or a hollow ball. The folding is powered by instigating water transfer between droplets.

Read the entire study at Science: "A Tissue-Like Printed Material."

Image: University of Oxford/G. Villar.