Building human organs is underway with cell-stacking technology

Pick-and-place automation has progressed beyond machine manufacturing and into the world of human anatomy. Research engineers at Brown University are building tiny versions of human organs, one micro-level at a time, with a pick-and-place device made of igus® components. 

Brown Professor Jeffrey Morgan and his team spearheaded this groundbreaking approach to bio-building, with the goal of someday creating complete organs to help transplant-list patients. They take honeycomb-shaped molded cells, and carefully stack and perfuse them with liquid nutrients. Since the cells are living components, they naturally form into cohesive structures over time—the early stages of human organ development. 

The building process of the cells occurs inside a cell-stacking device, the BioP3 (Bio-Pick, Place and Perfuse). Keeping the technique novel, an Xbox video game controlled controller is used in the semi-automatic process to drive the cells in stacks.  Research engineer and assistant professor Blanche Ip maneuvers the BioP3 controller, while counterpart John Murphy oversees the process on an adjacent computer monitor.


The molded cells and surrounding fluid are carefully suctioned by a gripping device that is connected to a syringe pump and moved to a platform used as a microscope stage. The fluid and molded cells get pushed out of the nozzle, adding the cells to the stack below. Typical 3D bio-printing prints one drop at a time, while the BioP3 uses pre-assembled living parts and one thousand times more cells per part, providing a much faster and more efficient process.

Tissues of about 150 million cells have been created so far, which is the fraction of a human liver. To allow for precision of this capacity, the cells must align well enough to allow the perfusion of nutrients. Murphy, who also runs the university’s biomed machine shop, achieved the accuracy needed in the BioP3 by selecting a number of cost-effective igus® components.

Stainless steel drylin® linear slide tables are used in the BioP3. They are embedded with self-lubricating iglide® T500 bearing liners, which operate without any external grease or oil. This keeps the system hygienic and free of potential contamination, as well as able to withstand the harsh autoclaving process required for laboratory sterilization. Durable, high-performance plastic e-chain® cable carriers are also used to guide the system’s delicate cables and hoses along the multi-axis gantry. 

Murphy plans to fully automate the system with a multi-build plan. Currently, four drylin® slide tables are built into the system, but the idea is to expand. Once automated, the BioP3 could create full organs for transplant patients, as well as small-scale living models that can be used for testing chemicals, also eliminating the need for animal testing.