May 22, 2016 | By Alec

While most biomedical research projects involving 3D printing have access to immense budgets, one team of Texas students just proved that even low-cost desktop 3D printing can have a huge impact on the medical world. For just $6.42, they can build a 3D printed otoscope smartphone attachment, which can help diagnose preventable hearing loss. A perfect tool for doctors and patients in developing countries where a lot of people have smartphones, but hardly have access to medical care.

As it happens, the developing world is also the region where hearing loss is most commonplace. According to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, hearing loss affects about 360 million people around the world, with many of them living in the developing regions of South Asia, Asia Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa. That’s no coincidence; hearing loss is usually caused by complications that can be easily prevented. Birth complications, chronic ear infections, drug use and unsafe work environments can all contribute. Primary prevention tools or diagnostic aids, however, are hardly available in those developing regions.

What’s more, hearing loss usually has a tremendous impact on the economic and social wellbeing of patients in those parts of the world. According to the WHO, many children suffering from early-onset hearing loss and deafness don’t even receive any schooling. Adults with the same problems, meanwhile, are almost completely unemployable.

Fortunately, the student members of Texas A&M University’s chapter of Engineering World Health found a 3D printing solution. With their LED otoscope smartphone attachment, people in the third world can take pictures of their inner ear, which will immediately reveal early complications when they can still be dealt with. The team, led by design leader Robert Hunt and vice president Tessa Bronez, is already looking into options for making an easy reproducible kit.

Both joined the group three years ago, when it was just a small and unambitious team. “We thought coming into our senior year, we should try to take some initiative and get more people involved and come up with something exciting,” Hunt said. Gathering a lot of (electrical) engineers around them, they set out to tackle a major health problem. When going through a list of common obstacles for medical professionals around the world (provided by Engineering World Health), they found out that something like a low-cost otoscope didn’t even exist.

When starting on their design, the team immediately decided to build it around smartphones. “We thought we could use a phone to make it low cost, because they could use the camera on the phone,” Bronez said. “A lot of people are surprised to hear that many people in developing countries have smartphones, particularly in the more urban areas where the hospitals are.” The rest of the device is deceptively simple, consisting of nothing more than a few standard lenses, LEDs, and a motherboard, packed into a 3D printed clamp that can be adjusted for any smartphone model. While a doctor’s otoscope costs several hundred dollars, the smartphone attachment can be built for just $6.42.

But the key parts are the red, blue and green LED lights that are also included in the device. During their research, the Texas students found that using different wavelengths of light – instead of just white – creates better contrasts during inner-ear imaging. Some complications are even better spotted using one of the differently colored LED lights. “If you’re looking at a certain type of infection, it’s easier to see if you’re using green light than if you’re using white light,” Hunt said.

The Texas students are currently looking into commercialization options and hope their tool can make a difference in the lives of millions of people. But they are also seeing it as a stepping stone for more similar projects. Hunt and Bronez have both used the 3D printed otoscope as a practical application example when applying for follow-up biomedical engineering studies. Bronez is headed towards Johns Hopkins University as a graduate student, while Hunt is going to Stanford University for a master’s degree. Both will, however, continue to closely work on engineering tools that can have a huge impact in the medical world. The otoscope is, they say, just the beginning.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Glenn Silver wrote at 5/26/2016 4:53:24 PM:

Could this instrument also be used in the poverty, stricken areas - rural and urban - within the US? Also, what training is required to use the otoscope? Can a layperson use it as a screening tool to let people know they need a more rigorous examination?

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