How do I communicate the future of 3D printing in medicine?

It’s safe to say that 3D printing is not a new concept to most with the first findings tracing back to Hideo Kodama in 1981, a Japanese inventor. If you have any questions on his method of 3D printing, just drop me a line. 3D printing has become one of the most widely recognised buzz words not only in research, but amongst creators in general. The technical definition is that 3D printing is a type of additive manufacture, but this isn’t much better than if I just said it’s ‘printing in 3D’…
In short, it is:

Creating an object by adding layer-upon-layer of material

Science fiction has done well to make people aware of the future for 3D printing in medicine and has certainly got everyone excited about it. I won’t go into the details of it too much, but practically it isn’t as easy as TV/Film makes it out to be which is why communication is so vital. Organs and tissues are incredibly complex. Without going off on a tangent, it is important to remember that they are hierarchical and have developed through extensive trial and error. As such, our approach as tissue engineers must reflect this and so we are tackling the larger goal in bite-sized portions.

There are a variety of 3D printers available. Some heat a plastic filament, a bit like thick fishing line, whilst others use a laser to cure (set) a liquid resin and some work a bit like your home inkjet printer. They each have their benefits and pitfalls, and so are chosen depending on the product requirements.

Stratasys is probably one of my favourite brands to work with. Having found a fairly apt organ designs online, I set about a process known as ‘wrapping’. This is where I effectively superimposed a 2D image of the same organ around a 3D object. It’s not the easiest or quickest of processes, but once you’ve found a good anatomical image, it means you can highlight some of the finer details.
Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture of this step.

Wrapping a 2D image round a 3D object (Find here)

Next it’s a matter of starting the printer and the long process of making the object. Inkjet 3D printing allows you to use multiple inks simultaneously, whilst also printing disposable support material to help steady the object as it prints. Also, it means you can print materials with different stiffness’s at the same time.

Final print of objects on inkjet 3D printer (Stratasys J750). The white coating is the disposable support material.

The support material is easily rub off, it has a wax-like appearance and consistency. I then gave the prints a thorough scrub with warm soapy water and let them dry over night.

3D printing in medicine is not only for the development of patient-specific treatments, but represents the future of other methods, like off-the-shelf treatments. As such, I thought it would be good to demonstrate this and so I set about making some packaging from old Easter egg boxes. I added basic information about the 3D printed organs too.

  • On-demand 3D printed manufacture
  • Patient-specific tissue matching
  • Engineered biomimetic architecture
Information for the packaging of the 3D printed heart model.

It was then just a matter of constructing the packaging and using wire ties from the packaging of a child’s toy to hold the organ in place.

And that was it. They are ready for me to use at OutReach events for The University of Manchester and I plan to use them for some online teaching resources too.

The final packaged 3D printed heart and kidney models.

Although they are a simple model, these printed organs help to illustrate the end goal of a lot of regenerative medicine research which is going on right now. Having something for members of the public to hold and ask questions about goes a long way to support their learning and understanding.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on 3D printing in medicine. Do you use 3D printers at home? Let me know what you’re getting up to with them!

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