Scientists create tongue-like surface using 3D printer

The development could pave the way for a range of new possibilities.

Scientists based in the UK claim to have 3D-printed the first synthetic tongue surface.

Creating the biomimetic soft surface with tongue-like textures could pave the way for a range of new possibilities, such as testing oral processing properties of food, nutritional technologies, pharmaceuticals and dry mouth therapies.

Researchers from the University of Leeds in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh said they managed to mimic some of the tongue’s unique factors, including elasticity, wettability and topology in its synthetic silicone structure.

“Recreating the surface of an average human tongue comes with unique architectural challenges,” said Dr Efren Andablo-Reyes, study lead author.

Silicone impressions of human palate and tongue used
Silicone impressions of human palate and tongue (Anwesha Sakar/University of Leeds/PA)

“Hundreds of small bud-like structures called papilla give the tongue its characteristic rough texture that in combination to the soft nature of the tissue create a complicated landscape from a mechanical perspective.

“We focused our attention on the anterior dorsal section of the tongue where some of these papillae contain taste receptors, while many of them lack such receptors.

“Both kinds of papillae play a critical role in providing the right mechanical friction to aid food processing in the mouth with the adequate amount saliva, providing pleasurable mouthfeel perception and proper lubrication for swallowing.

“We aimed to replicate these mechanically relevant characteristics of the human tongue in a surface that is easy to use in the lab to replicate oral processing conditions.”

It is hoped the development could eventually be used in screening newly designed products and accelerate development processes without needing to use costly and time-consuming human trials at early stages – particularly during the coronavirus pandemic when social distancing poses new challenges to sensory trials and consumer tests.

“The application of bio-tribological principles, the study of friction and lubrication, in the creation of this tongue-like surface is a significant step forward in this field,” added Dr Michael Bryant, co-author of the research.

“The ability to produce accurate replicas of tongue surfaces with similar structure and mechanical properties will help streamline research and development for oral care, food products and therapeutic technologies.”

The study is published in the ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces journal.

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