Shapeshifting, mRNA, and organoid brains – all in a days’ work with 4D printing

Shapeshifting, mRNA, and organoid brains – all in a days’ work at this Queensland biotech

Stepping into the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at The University of Queensland feels like stepping into another world of brain organoids; lasers; shape shifting materials;  and where, literally, scientists are working in the fourth dimension.

It’s a unique research and development biotech.

For example for the past three years, Dr Ruirui Qiao and Dr Liwen Zhang have been developing new 4D printing technology.

Using a commercially available 3D printer, they turn out solid objects which possess the capacity to shapeshift into different forms when exposed to stimuli such as heat, water or light.

“The fourth dimension is actually time – these structures can change their shape over time,” Qiao explains.

Scientist wearing goggles pointing at a 4d printer
Dr Ruirui Qiao. Image by AIBN.

Zhang demonstrates how it works, using a pair of tweezers to pluck a series of small objects out of a beaker of iced water (0˚C).

Seconds after being plunged into a second beaker filled with tepid water (15˚C), an object which is gracefully curved like a lotus flower flattens out to resemble an icon shaped like the sun.

Other objects, too, straighten, uncoil and smooth out like freshly ironed shirts.

Made with new liquid metal polymers, these 4D structures can also be coaxed into performing a range of mechanical tasks with infrared lasers – meaning they can bend, grasp, lift, and release items five times their weight, or revert to a pre-programmed shape.

Zhang says this method allows the researchers to produce objects that can be customised, shaped and prompted to change over time without the need for wires or circuits. 

“This is a new era for robotics applications and a gamechanger for additive manufacturing,” he says.

Other potential applications span the aeronautical engineering and medical device sector, including coronary stents, artificial muscles, and other devices that adapt and change shape inside the body.

“For example, you could print a stent structure, and you could put it in the vascular (system) and use light to trigger a change in shape which causes the stent to expand (inside the blood vessel),” says Qiao.

In the journal Nature Communications, Zhang, Qiao, and colleague Professor Tom Davis, detail how they used spherical liquid metal nanoparticles to prepare printing resins that are responsive to near-infrared light.

Scientist wearing glasses holding 4d printed object with blue gloves
Dr Liwen Zhang 4D printed liquid metal structure. Image by AIBN.

This is what allows lasers to guide these “smart” materials to bend, grab and release items.

While the technology is in its early stages, Qiao says there is enormous potential to use it in the design of soft robotics, or technologies that mimic natural movements and interactions.

Having the ability to customise and shape materials after they have been printed opens up the possibility of broader manufacturing breakthroughs and consumer innovations, from self-healing plumbing pipes to clothes that react to weather conditions.

And in good news for anyone who’s ever struggled to put together an Ikea cabinet, 4D printing might also lead to furniture that assembles itself once it’s taken out of the box.

While further research is required to develop a stent that shows sound biocompatibility and the right level of responsiveness, it’s anticipated that this research will be commercialised within 1-2 years.

Printing the future

The laboratories at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) at The University of Queensland are housed inside this six-level structure.

There’s a robotic organoid facility which produces tiny human brains, livers, lungs and other organs in vitro; a facility which produces 95 per cent of all mRNA made in Australia; a manufacturing facility creating microchips 70,000 times smaller than a human hair; and one of only three research-dedicated 7T MRI scanners in the southern hemisphere.

“We’ve got things here which are nowhere else on the planet,” says AIBN’s director, Professor Alan Rowan, who took the helm in 2016.

Even more remarkable is that these unique facilities are located under the one roof.

I’m here today to meet a handful of AIBN’s 550 team leaders, post-doctoral researchers and students from all over the globe, who are working on projects aimed at finding solutions for some of society’s most serious problems in health, energy and the bioeconomy.

Path to commercialisation

Our approach is to ask industry, ‘What’s your problem? Let’s build the capabilities to try to help you solve it’

Professor Alan Rowan, Director of AIBN director

The 4D printing project is just one of hundreds on the boil inside AIBN, one of eight standalone research facilities at UQ, and Australia’s first purpose-built facility for research combining the biological, chemical and physical sciences.

Current goals include unlocking the proteins found in plasma to create new medicine; promoting regenerative wound healing and preventing scar formation; providing greener, safer, longer-life alternative to lithium batteries; and reprogramming bacteria to ‘eat’ greenhouse gas waste.

Established in 2006, AIBN arose through a partnership between The University of Queensland, Chuck Feeney’s The Atlantic Philanthropies and what was then a Peter Beattie-led Queensland Government.

The Institute is focussed on getting science out of the laboratories and using it to create things that are useful to the community, says Rowan.

“Our approach is to ask industry, ‘What’s your problem? Let’s build the capabilities to try to help you solve it’,” says Rowan. “It’s far more outward facing.”

“Yes, we want good people and, yes, we want publications, but it’s more (oriented towards), ‘Let’s build capabilities to help companies take things to market’.”

The Institute helps move good ideas from the lab bench to the production line, and thus vault the “valley of death” that is the choke point for many biotechs.

Moving from a low to a high level of “translational readiness” is a time-consuming and costly process due to the extent of animal, toxicology and other testing required.

“It’s very hard to get the money, so we try to bridge that gap,” Rowan says.

Expansion plans

Last year, the Institute announced that it had secured $6.6million to establish a dedicated mRNA laboratory as demand for mRNA vaccines and therapies continues to surge.

The Commonwealth Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) National Critical Research Infrastructure scheme will tip in $4.3 million, with global healthcare company and partner Sanofi and UQ each committing $1 million, and the Queensland Government $250,000.

At AIBN’s BASE facility, work is already underway, with BASE producing up to 95 per cent of all mRNA for research and pilot studies in Australia, says Dr Seth Cheetham, the facility’s deputy director.

“(It) was founded in 2021 in recognition of the lack of sovereign capability in relation to mRNA manufacture in Australia,” Cheetham says.

“Obviously, the COVID vaccine got the most headlines, but they’re the tip of the iceberg.”

For instance, mRNA may ultimately be used to create vaccines for other infectious diseases such as malaria, to treat existing diseases like cancer by activating the immune system to attack cancer cells and to repair genes responsible for diseases like cystic fibrosis.

Cheetham says cosmetics giants have even flagged interest in mRNA technologies which might instruct cells to create collagen, thus slowing down the visible signs of skin ageing.

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