Just press Print – 3D bioprinting enables wearable and medical innovations

15 May 2014

A 3D printer at work

A conference at Dublin City University (DCU) is highlighting how 3D ‘bioprinting’ enables innovation in wearable and medical technology.

Could the next big revolution in wearable and medical technology be at the push of a button – one that states ‘Print’? If a conference in DCU this week is anything to go by, it’s already happening.

Innovations discussed at the 3D Bioprinting Symposium include customised holders for wearable monitoring devices, and physical models of broken bones, aneurysms and heart defects in individual patients to help surgeons get a handle on how to fix them.

“Staggering” is how Prof Gordon Wallace from the University of Wollongong in Australia describes the recent growth of 3D ‘bioprinting’, which uses 3D-printing technology to make devices compatible with biological systems, such as the human body.

The field has seen some headline-grabbing breakthroughs in recent years, such as moves towards printed organs, where the printer ‘ink’ contains the biological materials to build up the structures, but the application of 3D bioprinting is far broader, he notes.

“What is really exciting about the area is that there is a continuum of applications that we have still got to unearth,” says Wallace, who is executive research director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES).

“The extremely sophisticated implantables and artificial organs are the dreams of the future and I think it is great to aspire to it, and I think we will get there, but as people become aware of the tech they see immediate applications. We have found that by having our fabrication facility at the hospital that almost weekly a clinician will identify a very short-term application – it might be a special screw or a tool, or a wearable prosthetic. And that’s why I think it will survive. Often with new technologies there really is the promise of long-term applications and there is no shorter-term application to keep feeding activity, but 3D printing has that continuum, it’s a growing community and it’s an amazing field to be working in at the moment.”

At the conference in DCU yesterday, which was opened by Minister for Research and Innovation Seán Sherlock, TD, Wallace spoke about how advances in 3D printing are prompting new thinking in materials too, and he described innovations, such as customised holders to hold wearable monitoring devices and polymer-coated textiles for making fabrics with built-in sensor capabilities.

Hearts and bones

Other speakers discussed applications for bioprinting, including building physical models of a patient’s skeletal injuries based on their scans, so surgeons can get another (and more ‘hands-on’) perspective on how to treat them.

And it’s not just bones: Dr David Frakes from Arizona State University, described how they build transparent 3D models of an individual aneurysm, or bulge in a blood vessel, that can be used to test various treatment options ahead of operating on the patient, and how physical models of heart defects can again give surgeons a new perspective and help to explain the operation in advance to patients and their families.

“These are not the stuff of science fiction, they are happening in hospitals right now,” he says. “And it is exciting to see the impact on patients and their families.”

DCU partners with ACES

Prof Dermot Diamond, director of the National Centre for Sensor Research at DCU has had a long-standing collaboration with Wallace in Wollongong, and now DCU and ACES have formed a new, more formal partnership with a focus on producing intelligent monitoring systems for wearable and implantable devices.

Diamond believes 3D bioprinting is coming of age and stands to turn ideas quickly into realities. “I think these technologies are converging very rapidly,” he says. “And you can see this is going to have profound implications, it’s an enabling technology that will have a huge impact.”

Still bioprinting …

The 3D bioprinting meeting continues today and will include a session at the Australian Embassy of Ireland to showcase the Australian-European connections in emerging 3D printed bio-compatible technologies. Tomorrow at 6pm, Wallace will give a public lecture at the Science Gallery in Dublin to explore the potential of 3D printing to print new body parts, such as cochlear implants, vascular implants and facial reconstructions, and how 3D bioprinting can enable research.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication