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Raw materials & technologies, Technologies

Inkjet inks made of silk could yield smart bandages

Friday, 19 June 2015

Silk inks containing enzymes, antibiotics, antibodies, nanoparticles and growth factors could turn inkjet printing into a new, more effective tool for therapeutics, regenerative medicine and biosensing.

When printed on surgical gloves in functional silk inks doped with bacteria-sensing agents, the word "contaminated" changed from blue to red after exposure to E. coli. Source: Tufts University
When printed on surgical gloves in functional silk inks doped with bacteria-sensing agents, the word "contaminated" changed from blue to...

According to new research led by biomedical engineers, inkjet printing is one of the most immediate and accessible forms of printing technology currently available, and ink-jet printing of biomolecules has been previously proposed by scientists. However, the heat-sensitive nature of these unstable compounds means printed materials rapidly lose functionality, limiting their use.

Inks remain active over time

Enter purified silk protein, or fibroin, which offers intrinsic strength and protective properties that make it well-suited for a range of biomedical and optoelectronic applications. This natural polymer is an ideal "cocoon" that can stabilise compounds such as enzymes, antibodies and growth factors while lending itself to many different mechanically robust formats, said Fiorenzo Omenetto, Ph.D., associate dean for research and Frank C. Doble Professor of Engineering at Tufts School of Engineering. "We thought that if we were able to develop an inkjet-printable silk solution, we would have a universal building block to generate multiple functional printed formats that could lead to a wide variety of applications in which inks remain active over time," he said.

Doped with a variety of components

By using this simple approach and starting with the same base material, the research team created and tested a "custom library" of inkjet-printable, functional silk inks doped with a variety of components:

  • Bacterial-sensing polydiacetylenes (PDAs) printed  on surgical  gloves;  the word "contaminated" printed on the glove changed from blue to red after exposure to E. coli
  • Proteins that stimulate bone growth (BMP-2) printed on a plastic dish to test topographical control of directed tissue growth
  • Sodium ampicillin printed on a bacterial culture to test the effectiveness of a topographical distribution of the antibiotic
  • Gold nanoparticles printed on paper, for possible application in photonics and biology (e.g., color engineering, surface plasmon resonance based sensing and bio-imaging)
  • Enzymes printed on paper to test the ability of the ink to entrain small functional biomolecules
Wide potential for future application

The researchers foresee wide potential for future investigation and application of this technology. For example, Omenetto envisions more work on the bio-sensing gloves, which he says could selectively react to different pathological agents. The ability to print antibiotics in topographical patterns could address the need for "smart" bandages, where therapeutics are incorporated and delivered to match a complex injury. The published research was restricted to one ink cartridge, but the scientists believe it could extend to multi-cartridge printing combining complex functions.

When printed on surgical gloves in functional silk inks doped with bacteria-sensing agents, the word "contaminated" changed from blue to red after exposure to E. coli.

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