The Bioprinter Team at St Petersburg University has developed a printer prototype that will make it possible to print biological tissue and will also help to carry out research in laboratories, both more effectively and faster, and, in the future, to print organs for transplantation.  The students’ project has made it into the final of the SPbU Start-up – 2021 contest.

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With  two extruders and a filter inside

There are quite a few companies in the world that are engaged in 3D bioprinting, but in Russia there is not a single company that is ready to mass-produce them.   The available models are rather expensive and, what is more, almost all of them have only one extruder, which is the device that actually does the printing.  It is impossible to print most biological tissue accurately enough in this way.  The St Petersburg University students decided to create, on their own, a printer with two extruders and all of the basic functions, and it can be used for different purposes. 

When you are printing biomaterial, clean air is important, so a special laminar airflow cabinet is used in the laboratories to create sterile conditions. To make it easier to use, we decided to build this function into the part of the printer that does the actual printing.  So, you can put such a device on an ordinary desktop and start printing without any special training. 

Bioprinter Team Captain Timur Aminev, a 2nd-year master’s student in Physics

Another advantage of this design is the low cost.  There are few laboratories today that can afford to buy expensive bioprinters and adapt them to their needs.  On top of that, they need to be purchased abroad and, if they break down, to be repaired by the manufacturer.  This takes a lot of time and drives up the cost of the equipment.  To solve these problems, the students took it upon themselves to design the printer and develop the software.  According to team captain Timur Aminev, who is in the second year of a master’s programme in Physics, even small laboratories will be able to afford the ‘basic trim-level’ 3D bioprinter, since he and the other participants in this project estimate that their device will cost about 300,000 roubles, which is several times less expensive than similar models that are currently on the market.  

Biopolymers instead of plastic

The main difference between a 3D bioprinter and a conventional 3D printer is in the material used:  instead of plastic, the extruder provides biomaterials and biopolymers that can be used to make biological tissues (for example, skin for people who have lost it in fires) and, in the long run, whole organs for transplants. 

‘In our project, there are two choices:  the most functional and the most inexpensive.  We are going to present a second model of the printer, with all of the necessary options, as a start-up project,’ Mr Aminev noted.  ‘This will allow contemporary laboratories to “grow” tissue and to carry out more precise research.  We use a multi-purpose structural section, and we make the extruders ourselves, which also reduces the cost of the off-the-shelf equipment.’  

Two different types of extruders are used in the test sample that the team is presenting in the contest.  The piston-type extruder will produce bio-substances, and the syringe-type extruder will produce a cell suspension.  In a word, one material will complement the other.  This method of printing, which uses a syringe whose needle has a very small diameter, delivers a suspension in the form of a small droplet.  The syringe then comes into contact with the working surface, the droplet remains on it, and the syringe moves on to another point on the surface and repeats the procedure.  In this way, cells populate a framework made of biomaterial that has been printed by the piston extruder.  This approach will help to print more samples, which will speed up the research.

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Interest in this project

It occurred to the design team that they should create a 3D bioprinter about two years ago, and the St Petersburg University Project Workshop allocated funds for the development of the first model.  Last year, the first-time entrepreneurs took part in the start-up contest, but they were unable to get past the preliminary round.  They have refined their invention since then and have made it into the final round of this year’s contest, where they are in the running for the grand prize – a million roubles, which they could use to further develop their start-up. 

In addition, the team is now working with the Institute of Cytology of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  In order to find partners among research centres, the developers simulated a model of their printer and sent it to the laboratories in St Petersburg that are engaged in bioprinting.   The Institute Cytology of the Russian

Academy of Sciences responded and took an interest in the St Petersburg University students’ project, and so, in the future, their bioprinter may help to create and to carry out research on artificial cartilage tissues.

The authors of the project note that, of course, the printer alone will not be enough to work with biomaterials and create organs with 3D printing.  Creating samples of, let’s say, artificial skin calls for strict working conditions:  clean air, sterile storage areas and well-managed production.    

The St Petersburg University students’ invention can also help laboratories that deal with simpler tasks, for example investigating the behaviour of tissues that have been cultivated in a Petri dish.  Such tissues can be printed out and then studied more precisely and expeditiously.  The bioprinter can be further developed and, in the long run, serve to create organs and tissues for clinical use.

The Bioprinter Team is composed of the following members:

  • Timur Aminev, who is in the second year of a master’s programme in Physics at St Petersburg University. He is responsible for the design of the printer and the work of the team.
  • Vasilii Kutuzov, who is in the first year of a master’s programme in Physics at St Petersburg University. He is responsible for electronics development and editing of the printer firmware.
  • Petr Turchenko, who is in the first year of a bachelor’s programme in Physics at St Petersburg University. He deals with purchasing components, assembling the printer and testing its systems.
  • Aleksandr Kovalchuk, who is in the third year of a bachelor’s programme in Applied Mathematics and Informatics at St Petersburg University. He works with microcontrollers and develops software.
  • Polina Zhukunova, who is a graduate of the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation and the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, with a degree in World Economics, and who is also in the first year of a bachelor’s programme in Biology at St Petersburg University. She develops marketing strategies and engages in business analytics.

The ‘SPbU Start-up’ contest is being held at the University for the sixth time. Teams that have presented best knowledge-intensive and commercially viable business models will receive monetary prizes from the Endowment Fund of St Petersburg University: 300,000 roubles for the first, 200,000 for the second, and 100,000 for the third place. Additionally, the two winning teams may be offered to establish a small innovative enterprise with the participation of St Petersburg

University. Grants for their projects’ development will amount to 1,000,000 and 700,000 roubles for the first and second places respectively. For detailed information about the ‘SPbU Start-up – 2021’ student contest please visit the website of the Endowment Fund of St Petersburg University.

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