3D printed biocompatible hydrogel sugar sensor breakthrough

Researchers from AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research, in conjunction with the Insight, the SFI centre for Data Analytics, and the University of Wollongong, Australia, have developed a 3D printed biocompatible hydrogel sugar sensor.

Most people are familiar with the pinprick test used to measure blood sugar concentrations or might even be aware of glucose measuring sensors that sit under the skin for continuous monitoring. For millions of people worldwide with diabetes, a disease in which the body is unable to regulate blood sugars, monitoring of blood sugar levels by either of these mechanisms is of critical importance.

For the first time scientists think they may have found a way to use 3D printing technology to create a new generation of smart sensors that can measure the biochemical environment of our cells – including sugar monitoring. The new technology builds on a substance found in many glucose sensors: hydrogels. A hydrogel is a type of polymer and is used because it can enhance the sensor lifetime, giving it some mechanical stability, and can be functionalised, or turned into a ‘smart gel’, so that it is sensitive to the environment and can facilitate drug delivery.

In their recent publication, which garnered the front cover in the highly regarded journal Macromolecular Rapid Communications, scientists reported their innovative use of 3D printing technology to create gelatin hydrogel scaffolds with functionalised sugar-sensing molecules. The team created a bio-ink, integrating a gelatin hydrogel polymer with sugar sensing molecules, which can then be 3D printed. The sugar sensing molecules fluoresce in the presence of sugars in physiologically relevant concentration ranges (up to 40 mM), and as the concentrations of glucose or fructose (another sugar molecule) increases, the fluorescence emission also increases up to concentrations of 100 mM.

While the work is still based in the lab, with the results presented in the publication coming from tests being done outside the body, and inside the test tube, the lead researchers are very positive about the direction of the research.

AMBER investigator Prof. Larisa Florea, of the School of Chemistry, said “Over the past few years we have been really interested in finding ways to measure glucose concentrations. Our results indicate that we have found a way to do this by using glucose sensing compounds and combining them with 3D printing technologies. A very common use for 3D printing of bioinks is to make scaffolds for growing cells and tissue. The added value our work brings, is that by adding certain molecules into these scaffolds, by functionalising them, we can potentially create scaffolds that grow cells, and also sense and report on the environment of the cell. So this study has far reaching consequences beyond sugars, it serves as a blueprint for the generation of 3D printed chemical sensing platforms”.

Prof. Florea goes on to highlight the importance of collaboration in the production of this kind of research, saying “this truly was a team effort; from our very talented PhD student, Danille Bruen at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics who developed the glucose sensing compounds used in the study, to Prof. Gordan Wallace at University of Wollongong, Austrailia, who brings vast expertise in the area of 3D printing technologies, and enabled us to print our final bio-ink. This collaboration illustrates the benefits of bringing together the possibilities of novel materials with the vast field of 3D printing. We would certainly hope to continue this successful collaboration into the future and broaden the scope of the research into new and exciting areas”.