When disaster strikes, this Irish-based team 3D prints medical devices

19 Sep 2017

3D printing in action. Image: OlegDoroshin/Shutterstock

In developing nations during a disaster, quick access to medical equipment can often be left wanting, but 3D printing is trying to bridge the gap.

For more than a decade now, 3D printing as a concept has promised a revolution in everything from construction to food production but, on the surface, you might think things haven’t changed much.

This couldn’t be further from the case, however, particularly in medicine where 3D printers have set in motion a future where many of us are already cyborgs – humans with replacement body parts specifically printed to suit our individual needs.

Perhaps one of the most striking examples of its potential was recently seen at Inspirefest 2017 when NUI Galway research fellow Dr Ellen Roche showed her ingenious solution to print a soft robotic silicone sleeve to keep a heart pumping inside the body.

But not everything needs to be as complex as this, as the team from Med3DP at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) has shown time and again.

Founded by Dr Michael Monaghan and Dr Conor Buckley, the centre was set up to develop on-demand medical devices for humanitarian healthcare using 3D-printing technology.

Since it began, the group has built a wide range of projects complete with ready-to-print files, documentation and other helpful information for anyone else in an affected disaster zone, so that they can jump right in and start printing devices.

Anyone who visited Inspirefest this summer may have seen some of their creations first-hand, including a working stethoscope to let people listen to their own heartbeat.

One of those from Med3DP was Pooja Mandal from India, who is undertaking an MSc in bioengineering at TCD with a specialisation in tissue engineering and stem cells.

Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com, Mandal said that the device templates they are creating can be vital when second-hand medical devices get broken during transit or are lost.

In many cases, medical devices sent to countries in dire need of equipment are often obsolete or left with no instructions on how to operate them – but not so with 3D-printed devices.

Pooja and team

From left: Members of the Med3DP team, Elvira Ruiz Jiménez, Alice Brettle, Michael O’Connor and Pooja Mandal

One of the projects Mandal and her team in Med3DP worked on that she is particularly proud of is a 3D-printed breast pump, but she admits it’s still at a starting point, with design improvements needed to make it ideal for women in developing countries.

“What I would like is to be able to make it into a single component that is easily accessible, so that not much printing time goes into it,” she said.

This is just one of dozens of other devices the Med3DP team has already designed and built, including an umbilical cord clamp, pocket mask and valve, finger splint kit, and even a neck brace.

It shows, Mandal said, that 3D printing is certainly not simply a pursuit of makers and designers, but also for scientists like her who see it as making a substantial difference in the field of medicine.

“It has really revolutionised science as people are trying to get donor-matching organs, but now people can get a proper treatment without any immunogenic response [using 3D printing] … by building them with their own cells,” she explained.

So, aside from the impressive output of the group, what would she say is one of its greatest qualities?

The answer: a diverse team of 14 men and women from multiple nations, not your typical image of a group of exclusively Irish students who might not really understand the complexities of the problems they are trying to solve.

“We can all talk to each other, hear each other’s ideas, with everyone able to bring in their own scenarios from their countries,” Mandal said.

“Everything played a bigger role into the programme and helped us achieve our ultimate goal of getting into designing proper medical devices, especially from me as someone from a developing country.

“It was really good for me to see that and I felt that maybe someday I could revolutionise [3D-printing technology] in India.”

3D printing in action. Image: OlegDoroshin/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic