May 11, 2017 | By Benedict

Researchers at the University of Florida have developed a new silicone microgel 3D printing method that could result in much-improved medical devices such as implantable bands, balloons, soft catheters, slings, and meshes.

Although it can be unpleasant to think about, the reality is that many of us will be required to use some kind (if not several kinds) of medical device over the course of our lives. Whether it’s a titanium implant for a damaged hip, a catheter, or just a sling for a broken arm, these devices help us deal with and recover from our medical problems. Frankly, we’d be lost without them.

But that doesn’t mean that many medical devices couldn’t be better. We see evidence every day of medical instruments being improved, even within the field of 3D printing.

In a paper published today in the journal Science Advances, researchers at the University of Florida have outlined an exciting new 3D printing technique that could improve a whole range of medical devices, including ports for draining bodily fluids, implantable bands, balloons, soft catheters, slings, and meshes.

The process, which could supposedly lead to faster implantation of devices, uses 3D printed soft silicone to create devices that are stronger, cheaper, more flexible, and more comfortable than other devices on the market.

It does this by taking advantage of the physical process of “jamming,” in which the viscosity of a material increases as particle density increases. By creating printed medical devices that are not only soft and flexible, but which can also swell and contract in response to certain actions, the researchers can provide solutions to a diverse range of medical problems.

During the process, silicone is 3D printed into a micro-organogel support material.

Usefulness of the devices aside, using 3D printing to create these silicone structures brings about a number of advantages. Most current medical devices are molded, not printed. This means that they can take days or weeks to make, which is fine for mass production, but becomes a problem when patients need individual items tailored to their own bodies.

By 3D printing the devices, production time is reduced to a matter of hours, giving doctors the ability to get the medical device where it needs to be, when it needs to be there.

3D printing the medical devices produces other advantages too. For one, the process allows for the creation of small and complex devices, such as drainage tubes containing pressure-sensitive valves. It could also be used to create new therapeutic devices that release drugs or molecules to a patient’s body at a controlled rate using the aforementioned “jamming” principle. These devices would be especially useful for patients with pancreas or prostate diseases.

“Our new material provides support for the liquid silicone as it is 3D printing, allowing us create very complex structures and even encapsulated parts out of silicone elastomer,” said Christopher O’Bryan, a mechanical and aerospace engineering doctoral student in UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and lead author of the paper.

Being able to create more complex parts is only half of the story, however.

According to O’Bryan and his team, these 3D printed silicone medical devices are much cheaper to produce, whatever their shape or complexity. This, the team says, could make the 3D printing process an attractive proposition for medical professionals everywhere.

“The public is more sensitive to the high costs of medical care than ever before,” commented  researcher Tommy Angelini, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace. “Almost monthly we see major media and public outcry against high health care costs, wasteful spending in hospitals, exorbitant pharmaceutical costs. Everybody agrees on the need to reduce costs in medicine.”

Perhaps surprisingly, these 3D printed medical devices came about as a byproduct of an altogether different research project: attempting to make 3D printed organs and tissues.

During this original bioprinting research, the Florida researchers found a way to print soft materials using microscopic hydrogel particles. These granular gel materials were water-based, however, so weren’t compatible with “oily” inks like silicone.

Faced with this problem, the researchers tried something else: making oily versions of the microgels.

“Once we started printing oily silicone inks into the oily microgel materials, the printed parts held their shapes,” Angelini said. “We were able to achieve really excellent 3D printed silicone parts—the best I’ve seen.”

So while the team have put 3D printed organs and tissues on the backburner, their stalled research in bioprinting has actually led to a virtually perfect method of 3D printing medical devices.

“The reality is that we are probably decades away from the widespread implanting of 3D printed tissues and organs into patients,” Angelini said. “By contrast, inanimate medical devices are already in widespread use for implantation.

“Unlike the long wait we have ahead of us for other 3D bioprinting technolgies to be developed, silicone devices can be put into widespread use without technologically limited delay.”

Authors on the research paper, which is called “Self-assembled micro-organogels for 3D printing silicone structures,” also included Tapomoy Bhattacharjee, Samuel Hart, Christopher P. Kabb, Kyle D. Schulze, Indrasena Chilakala, Brent S. Sumerlin, and Greg Sawyer.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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