Engineers develop 3D printing method for creating patient-specific medical devices
03 May 2016
An innovative 3D printing technology has been developed that could revolutionise important biomedical equipment, enhancing treatment for everyone from premature babies to patients needing implants
Randall Erb, left, and Joshua Martin have developed an innovative 3D printing technology that could revolutionise important biomedical equipment. Photo: Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University
A team of researchers at Northeastern University, Massachusetts, has developed an innovative 3D printing technology that uses magnetic fields to shape composite materials – mixes of plastics and ceramics – into patient-specific products.
The biomedical devices they are developing will be both stronger and lighter than current models and, with their customised design, ensure an appropriate fit. Their paper on the new technology appears in Nature Communications.
One specific application of this new technology is developing patient-specific catheters, especially for premature newborns. Today’s catheters only come in standard sizes and shapes, which means they cannot accommodate the needs of all premature babies. “With neonatal care, each baby is a different size, each baby has a different set of problems,” said Randall Erb, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and lead researcher on the project. “If you can print a catheter whose geometry is specific to the individual patient, you can insert it up to a certain critical spot, you can avoid puncturing veins, and you can expedite delivery of the contents.”
Others have used composite materials in 3D printing, according to Joshua Martin, the doctoral candidate who helped design and run many of the experiments for the paper. What sets their technology apart, say Erb and Martin, is that it enables them to control how the ceramic fibers are arranged – and hence control the mechanical properties of the material itself.
That control is critical if you are crafting devices with complex architectures, such as customised miniature biomedical devices. Within a single patient-specific device, the corners, the curves and the holes must all be reinforced by ceramic fibres arranged in just the right configuration to make the device durable. This is the strategy taken by many natural composites from bones to trees.
Consider the structure of human bone. Fibres of calcium phosphate, the mineral component of bone, are naturally oriented just so around the holes for blood vessels in order to ensure the bone’s strength and stability, enabling, for example, your femur to withstand a daily jog.
Printing 3D medical devices
“We are following nature’s lead,” explained Martin, “by taking really simple building blocks but organising them in a fashion that results in really impressive mechanical properties.” Using magnets, Erb and Martin’s 3D printing method aligns each minuscule fibre in the direction that conforms precisely to the geometry of the item being printed.
“These are the sorts of architectures that we are now producing synthetically,” explained Erb, who has received a $225,000 Small Business Technology Transfer grant from the National Institutes of Health in the United States to develop the neonatal catheters with a local company. “Another of our goals is to use calcium phosphate fibres and biocompatible plastics to design surgical implants.”
The magnets are the defining ingredient in their 3D printing technology. Erb initially described their role in the composite-making process in a 2012 paper in the journal Science.
First, the researchers ‘magnetise’ the ceramic fibres by dusting them very lightly with iron oxide, which has already been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for drug-delivery applications. They then apply ultralow magnetic fields to individual sections of the composite material – the ceramic fibres immersed in liquid plastic – to align the fibres according to the exacting specifications dictated by the product they are printing.
“Magnetic fields are very easy to apply,” said Erb. “They’re safe, and they penetrate not only our bodies – think of CT scans – but many other materials.”
Finally, in a process called ‘stereolithography’, they build the product, layer by layer, using a computer-controlled laser beam that hardens the plastic. Each six-by-six inch layer takes a mere minute to complete.
“I believe our research is opening a new frontier in materials-science research,” said Martin. “For a long time, researchers have been trying to design better materials, but there’s always been a gap between theory and experiment. With this technology, we’re finally scratching the surface where we can theoretically determine that a particular fiber architecture leads to improved mechanical properties and we can also produce those complicated architectures.”
Joshua J. Martin, Brad E. Fiore, Randall M. Erb. ‘Designing bioinspired composite reinforcement architectures via 3D magnetic printing.’ Nature Communications, 2015; 6: 8641 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms9641