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3D Printing: The Future of Bodies

3D printing and medicine are truly a match made in heaven.  Additive manufacturing has, and will continue to, revolutionize the way humanity manages and conceptualizes the human body.  One of the most fascinating arenas in which 3D printing is proving what it can do is that of bioprinting.

PhillyVoice recently ran a profile on 3D bioprinting company BioBots.  BioBots began as a bioprinter in computational biology major Danny Cabrera’s Penn State dorm room.  Cabrera collaborated with friend and Penn State research specialist Ricky Solorzano.

As Cabrera explains, “I was a senior in college, and this bioprinter ended up being my senior design project.  [Cabrera and Solorzano developed the bioprinter prototype] and from there, we started to build a couple of these devices in our dorm room and sold them to scientists around the world.”

This is how BioBots began.

Back in 2015, Cabrera, Solorzano, and third co-founder Sohaib Hashmi “took the top prize at Pennvention…an invention competition with a $5,000 prize and a review from accelerator program DreamIt Ventures.”

Later that same year, BioBots would be accepted into DreamIt’s “second class of startups for its health-focused accelerator, DreamIt Health.  The company received $50,000 in funding and office space at the University City Science Center.”

With this funding and real estate, BioBots was able to release the BioBot 1 that year.  The BioBot 1 was “the world’s first commercially available desktop 3D bioprinter, with a price tag of $10,000.  The BioBot 1 was a sleek, stylish 12-inch cube printing biological tissue with 100-micron resolution.”

Earlier this year, BioBots has released the BioBot 2, with a price tag of $40,000.  The BioBot 2 “boasts six temperature-controlled extruders for different biomaterials, sub-micron precision and auto-calibration.”

Over the last several years, BioBots has become quite successful.  In fact, “researchers around the world have used BioBots’ printers to make heart, lung, and stomach tissue, along with cartilage and bone.”

Truly, the age of the bioprinter has arrived.

Elsewhere in the intersection of these two industries is how 3D printing is improving the wonderful world of wound care.

3D Print reports on a 3D printed wound care product developed by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.  VTT is “a top research and technology company in the Nordic countries.”

The company is now “studying cellulose nanofibrils (nanocellulose or CNFs), which can improve bio-based 3D printing pastes as the variety and range of paste 3D printing materials is limited, for the purpose of developing a 3D [printed] wound care product to monitor the condition of patients’ wounds while in the hospital.  Nanofibrils are an alternative to using chemicals.

In collusion with the University of Tampere, VTT aims to grow healthy skin cells around a wound.  In order to achieve this goal, VTT “creates a solution where a protein attaches to a 3D printed adhesive bandage to facilitate this growth – this way, the healed area around the wound will stay flexible, instead of growing scar tissue.”

VTT’s Senior Scientist Panu Lahtinen explains, “by using nanocellulose, we have succeeded in creating 3D structures that absorb liquids three times more efficiently than the compared alginate fiber dressings commonly used in wound care.”

The measurement electrodes were 3D printed using silver ink.  This provides “connection points for VTT’s wireless FlexNode reader, onto a polyurethane-nanocellulose film; the reader, which can be attached to the patient’s wound with gauze, transmits temperature from the wound into a computer, in theory so a patient’s health care team could use it instantly.  A second laminated layer of film protects the electrodes, and the 3D printed wound care gel, with active ingredients of alginate, glycerol, and nanocellulose, sits on top of that.”

Bioprinting, wound care – but what about muscle creation?

SBS recently reported on a 3D printed artificial muscle developed by a team from the Creative Machines Laboratory at Columbia University in New York.

The team published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.  Astoundingly, this 3D printed artificial muscle has the ability to lift 1,000 times its own weight.  Researchers at Columbia “used a 3D printing technique to create the rubber-like synthetic muscle that expands and contracts like its biological counterpart.  Heated by a small electric current, the material was capable of expanding to nine times its normal size.”

Once tested, this 3D printed artificial muscle “demonstrated enormous strength, having a strain density – the amount of energy stored in each gram of a stretched elastic body – 15 times greater than natural muscle.”  The team dubbed this device a “soft actuator.”

As Professor Hod Lipson, one of the researchers from the Creative Machines Laboratory at Columbia explains, “we’ve been making great strides toward making robot minds, but robot bodies are still primitive.  This is a big piece of the puzzle, and like biology, the new actuator can be shaped and reshaped a thousand ways.  We’ve overcome one of the final barriers to making lifelike robots.”

Even beyond robots, however, these sorts of 3D printed ‘actuators’ could be useful for “sensitive surgical devices and a host of other applications where gripping and manipulation is important.”

Dr. Aslan Miriyev, also from the Creative Machines Lab, concludes, “our soft functional material may serve as robust soft muscle, possibly revolutionizing the way that soft robotic solutions are engineered today.  It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight.  It’s the closest artificial material equivalent we have to natural muscle.”

This research was funded, in part, by the Israeli Defense Ministry.

Finally, and perhaps most impactfully, 3D printing is flipping the dental industry up on its head.

Forbes reports on a massive sales boon by Align Technology, a dental giant, which manufactures clear aligners.  Align Technology has dubbed these aesthetically pleasing alternatives to braces as “Invisaligns.”

This past year alone, Align Technology reports a staggering $1.3 Billion in sales, with a $15 Billion market cap.  Much of their success is due to the fleet of 3D printers they use in order to create custom Invisaligns.  Align Technology’s factory includes anywhere from 50 to 60 high end 3D printers.  The dental giant utilizes stereolithographic 3D printers from 3D printing giant 3D Systems.  “It is one of the biggest, if not the largest, [factories] dedicated to 3D printing production spaces in existence today.”

In fact, Align Technology “produces over 220,000 clear aligners per day, almost 8 million per year.  To clarify – Align is not creating 220,000 standard products a day, but 220,000 custom-made products each day.  Each clear aligner is completely different from the one lying next ot it on the printer platform.”  This is truly the most impressive part of Align Technology’s manufacturing process.

Not only are these Invisaligns custom-made, they aren’t even created from mere plastic either.  They are 3D printed from “an advanced, medical-grade, FDA-approved polymer.”  Align Technology’s Vice President of Product Innovation Srini Kaza explains the company’s focus on materials science: “one key area where the field is rapidly progressing is the development of highly innovative materials.  Early materials could be brittle but today’s polymers have improved by leaps and bounds.  These new emerging material formulations will even surpass the quality we are seeing now, enabling the industry to print more functional and biocompatible parts directly in the printers.”

Truly, with the help of 3D printing, humanity is reforging the body in its own image.

Image Courtesy of PhillyVoice

Quotes Courtesy of PhillyVoice, 3D Print, SBS, and Forbes Magazine

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