Tufts silk ink research leads to new medical developments

Biomedical and mechanical engineers from Tufts published research this summer that could make inkjet printing a more effective tool for synthesizing medical technologies, with developments for a platform that allows 3D printing for liquid silk.

The study, published on June 16 in Advanced Materials online, examined silk inks that contain biological molecules such as enzymes, antibiotics, antibodies, nanoparticles and growth factors, according to an article on Tufts Now.

The outcome of the study has a variety of applications for the medical field, according to one of the researchers, Fiorenzo Omenetto, associate dean for research at the School of Engineering. A few of the most important applications include new possibilities for printing biological compounds from silk inks, printing on unusual surfaces such as catheters and building disposable devices for disease diagnosis, he added. According to the Tufts Now article, the researchers said that inkjet printing is “one of the most immediate and accessible forms of printing technology currently available,” and advances can make printing more useful for therapeutics, regenerative medicine and biosensing.

“The ability to print 3D biomaterial systems for medical devices, or to generate tissues, all that are biocompatible and safe, offers an important step forward in inks useful for a range of medical needs in 3D printing,” researcher David Kaplan, Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, said.

The process of silk ink printing includes taking silk fibers and melting them down into a liquid suspension, then controlling the way that silk can go from liquid to solid form, Omenetto said.

“The issue is that you have to fine tune the ink solution by making the liquid the right characteristics in order to be printed,” he said. “Once that happens, because silk is biocompatible and degradable over time, printing could go in a million directions.”

The potential applications for this research extend beyond the biomedical fields. According to Omenetto, there are also general health benefits that could follow from this research, such as developing biologically safe food handling for the food industry. A 2011 New York Times article reported that previous silk research conducted by Kaplan and other Tufts researchers yielded technology capable of monitoring whether food items are expired or safe to eat.

The researchers for this study, in addition to Omenetto and Kaplan, include BME Ph.D. students Rod R. Jose and Joseph Brown; Katherine Polido, a masters student in ME; Benedetto Marelli, Miaomiao Yang and Bo An of the Department of Biomedical Engineering; Hu Tao, former post-doctoral researcher in the Omenetto labSerdar Onses and John Rogers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering David Kaplan, according to the Tufts Now story.

Omenetto said the research team will continue its research on the field of 3D printing and expand to smart fabrics, bacteria sensing and collaboration within the industry.