May 2, 2016 | By Tess

In today’s world, if you have a headache or a sore body part, you simply have to pop an Advil, or another equivalent pain reliever. Treatments like Advil, or vitamin supplements like Centrum have become a staple in many of our lives, though many of us do not stop to think about the research and science that went in to actually developing the small, swallowable pills. Pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer have dedicated many resources and time to developing marketable and safe-to-use medications, like Advil, Centrum, Lyrica, Zoloft, Celebrex, and EpiPen to name but a few. Now, in their research to develop osteo and rheumatoid arthritis drugs, Pfizer has integrated 3D printing technology into their process, which has allowed them to streamline and continue their research more efficiently than before.

Comparative Medicine Department scientists David Zakur and Edwin Berryman have been conducting research for Pfizer for some time now, trying to develop a consumer-safe and efficient treatment for arthritis, a joint disorder that can affect almost 1 in 2 people by the age of 85. Part of their research has involved testing their various treatments on arthritic rat bones and scanning them with high-resolution Micro CT scans to see how the cartilage of the affected bone reacts. The scientists struggled, however, with finding a way to keep the bones placed in the exact same position from scan to scan, a crucial part of finding accurate data.

The bone type used in the experiments is a 1.5cm long proximal tibia, a bone from the knee joint shared by both humans and rats, which is shaped like a keel of a canoe, making it somewhat difficult to hold in the same place repeatedly. Before integrating 3D printing technologies into the research practice, the scientists spent much time ensuring that the bones were exactly placed, and even then many of their high-res scans were ultimately unusable because of only minuscule placing differences. To make sure the small bones could be consistently placed in the right orientation and position, the scientists needed to develop custom made rat bone holders, though manufacturing these externally could cost thousands of dollars. After attempting to create their own holders out of a conical tube and transfer pipette, the scientists found some success, though their holder still had a 40% failure rate.

Finally, after consulting with scientist Tim Winton from the Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology Lab, they found a solution to their problem with the help of 3D printing. Winton, who had worked with his lab’s MakerBot Replicator Desktop 3D Printer, was able to design and 3D print a custom rat bone holder that was capable of both holding the bone at an exact orientation and which could accommodate all the bone samples.

Of course, the process of designing the perfect rat bone holder for Zakur and Berryman’s experiments was not so straightforward, as Winton had to take many elements into consideration. In addition to the shape and structure of the holder, Winton had to create a holder tube that would keep the bone’s environment humid to avoid the cartilage from drying out (which would compromise the experiment’s findings). To account for this feature, a small amount of saline solution was added to the tube, which also had to remain dense enough to not float, and be made out of plastic to allow the X-ray scans to penetrate the holder. Winton created ten design prototypes using AutoDesk 123D software and the MakerBot 3D printer before creating the optimal holder design.

With the design finalized, the holder was manufactured a number of times on the 3D printer in preparation for use in the experiments. Winton explains the importance of being able to print identical holders in a quick fashion saying, “This consistency is imperative during the design process, when subtle tweaks to the holders were made in order to deliver the final product. Once the final design was complete we needed to print numerous holders. The Replicator’s consistency was showcased again by delivering exact duplications of the holders from print to print. Most notably the notches within the holder where the bone is placed are needed to be exact and replicable amongst all of the stands, and the Replicator provided excellent results.”

With the new holders, Zakur and Berryman were able to speed up their research process by cutting down on the amount of time spent ensuring the placing of the arthritic rate bones. While the scientists had to previously do initial scans to check whether the bones were properly placed, make adjustments to those improperly placed and redo the process all over again, with the new 3D printed holders they have been able to cut down the scanning time by an entire hour. Additionally, the holders have made the process of selecting usable images after scanning much easier.

All in all, 3D printing technologies helped the research lab to find an in-house solution to their problem that not only helped save time, but cut down significantly on costs. Robert Chapin, Senior Research Fellow in Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology, who initially brought in the MakerBot 3D printer into the lab, explains “3D printing allows everyone a greater degree of control and influence over their job, encouraging people to optimize the tools they use to that the job runs faster, smoother, and better.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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