Research & Development

Nanoscale 4D printing technique may speed development of new therapeutics

The technology combines nanolithography, microfluidics, and organic chemistry to create synthetic cell-like surfaces of high complexity.

Researchers at the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY ASRC) and Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, have developed a 4D printer capable of constructing patterned surfaces that recreate the complexity of cell surfaces. The technology allows scientists to combine organic chemistry, surface science, and nanolithography to construct precisely designed nanopatterned surfaces that are decorated with delicate organic or biological molecules. The surfaces will have a wide variety of uses, including in drug research, biosensor development, and advanced optics. Importantly, this technology can create surfaces with different materials, and these materials can be patterned across the surface without the use of expensive photomasks or tedious clean room processes.

"We've created a new tool for performing organic chemistry on surfaces, and its usage and application are only limited by the imagination of the user and their knowledge of organic chemistry.", said Adam Braunschweig, the study's primary investigator.

The printing method, called polymer brush hypersurface photolithography, combines microfluidics, organic photochemistry, and advanced nanolithography to create a mask-free printer capable of preparing multiplexed arrays of delicate organic and biological matter. The novel system overcomes a number of limitations present in other biomaterial printing techniques, allowing researchers to create 4D objects with precisely structured matter and tailored chemical composition at each voxel – a capability the researchers refer to as hypersurface lithography.

"Researchers have been working toward using lithographic techniques to pattern surfaces with biomolecules, but to date it was not possible to develope a system sophisticated enough to construct something as complicated as a cell surface, said the scientists. The also said, that they envision using this system to assemble synthetic cells that allow researchers to replicate and understand the interactions that occur on living cells, which will lead to the rapid development of medicines and other bioinspired technologies.

As proof-of-concept, the researchers printed polymer brush patterns using precise doses of light to control the polymer height at each pixel. Coordination between the microfluidics and the light source controls the chemical composition at each pixel.

The researchers plan to continue development of this novel printing platform to increase system speed, reduce pixel dimensions, and develop new chemistries for increasing the scope of materials that can be patterned. Currently, they are using the patterns created by this platform to understand the subtle interactions that dictate recognition in biological systems.

This research was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense through a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, and the Air Force Office of Science Research.


Original publication:
[Carbonell, C., Valles, D., Wong, A.M. et al., Polymer brush hypersurface photolithography, Nat Commun 11, 1244 (2020).]

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