Researchers at Houston Methodist Research Institute developed a new method of cell printing that borrows a little from the past. Inspired by ancient Chinese woodblock printing, the research team led by biomedical scientist Lidong Qin, Ph.D., created a system that produces 2D cell arrays in 30 minutes and prints cells as close as 5 µm together, opening the door to many different cell types. The new method, called Block-Cell-Printing (BloC-Printing), prints living cells on practically any surface—with almost all cells surviving the process. Current cell-printing methods are inkjet-based, and they leave cells with only a 50% to 80% survival rate.  

BloC-Printing maneuvers microfluidic physics to lead living cells into hook-like traps in the silicone mold. The cells flow down a column into the mold to the next available slot, eventually creating a grid of cells. The position and spacing of the traps, as well as the shape of the channel navigated by the cells, are fully configurable during the mold’s creation. When the mold is lifted away, the living cells remain behind, adhering to the growth medium or other substrate in prescribed formation.

The team performed tests on BloC-Printing using cancerous cells and primary neurons. By comparing the cells while in a grid, researchers found they could easily characterize the metastatic potential of cancer cells. Measuring different cells can help diagnose a cancer’s stage and could be helpful in understanding Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Cost differences between the two methods are stark. Materials for a single BloC mold cost $1, while an inkjet cell printer goes for between $10,000 and $200,000. On the other hand, inkjet remains faster and can print multi-layer structures, which isn’t possible yet with BloC-Printing.