3D printing the first ever biomimetic tongue surface

Scientists from the School of Food Science and Nutrition have created synthetic soft surfaces with tongue-like textures for the first time using 3D printing.

The creation of a synthetic soft surfaces with tongue-like textures opens new possibilities for testing oral processing properties of food, nutritional technologies, pharmaceutics and dry mouth therapies.

UK scientists led by the University of Leeds in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh have replicated the highly sophisticated surface design of a human tongue and demonstrated that their printed synthetic silicone structure mimics the topology, elasticity and wettability of the tongue’s surface.

These factors are instrumental to how food or saliva interacts with the tongue, which in turn can affect mouthfeel, swallowing, speech, nutritional intake and quality of life.

Particularly, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing has posed significant challenges to carry out such sensory trials and consumer tests. A biomimetic tongue will be immensely helpful to increase development productivity and reducing manufacturers’ reliance on human trials in the early stages.

The complex nature of the tongue’s biological surface has posed challenges in artificial replication, adding major obstacles to the development and screening of effective long-lasting treatments or therapies for dry mouth syndrome — roughly 10% of the general population and 30% of older people suffer from dry mouth.

Study lead author, Dr Efren Andablo-Reyes conducted this research while a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Food Science and Nutrition at Leeds. He said: “Recreating the surface of an average human tongue comes with unique architectural challenges. 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.”

The study that brought together unique expertise in food colloid science, soft matter physics, dentistry, mechanical engineering and computer science is published today in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

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