Jun 1, 2016 | By Faith

For the last few years, 3D printing in the biomedical sector has completely captivated both consumer and industry audiences alike. Realising the popular sci-fi dream of somehow materialising living tissue is without doubt an incredible example of contemporary additive manufacturing technology, but the real-life case studies of exactly how these progressive processes are helping people are sometimes recognised less. There’s still a long way to go until that pop-culture fantasy is realised, but until then, there are some very exciting projects working to develop solutions for extremely serious medical conditions.

One such project is the recently funded collaboration between Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University researchers, who, after having been granted $800,000 from the U.S. Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP) of the Department of Defense, are looking to help doctors make better breast cancer diagnoses.

The proposed product of the hacked 3D printers that will be developed during this project are reproductions of breast ducts. This particular area of the breast anatomy sits as a conduit between the mammary glands and nipples, and stands as an observation opportunity from which to measure characteristics associated with cancer. Only around 20 to 50 percent of patients with non-invasive tumours localized in the breast duct go on to actually develop invasive breast cancer, and so by focusing on this area, researchers hope to discover biomarkers to better diagnose which patients with precancerous breast duct lesions will need treating. Being able to make such an identification will doubtlessly cut-down on a huge number of treatments, costs and time from within the medical sector – along with the priceless health of so many potential sufferers worldwide.

Such a radical development in terms of risk assessment would be absolutely transformative with regards to making surgical decisions, and would cut down on the amount of unnecessary treatment (including lumpectomy plus radiation or mastectomy, and hormone therapy) performed on women developing breast cancer tumours. Despite diagnosis, medical professionals have never before had a method of ascertaining whether that recognised tumour may become invasive. The collaboration between Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University researchers and the use of their 3D printing technology may change that forever.

Interestingly, the hardware being used by the research team includes a hacked, consumer-grade MakerBot. Normally the MakerBot’s extruder builds objects by secreting layers of plastic, but the team have created a custom extruder specifically designed to layer proteins (and other molecules normally found in biological tissue) into specific structures and architectures.

Of course, the replication of intricate soft tissue structures with a 3D printer is not a new phenomenon. From the 3D printing of cartilage for knee surgery through to blood vessel structures and even commercially available bio-printers, this kind of research has been under development for a number of years. But what is especially exciting in this example is the direct, sector-implemented end-goal, and the ultimate plan for that end-goal to directly influence the lives of millions of women world-wide. It’s an inspiring story that will hopefully encourage similar research and development for decades to come.



Posted in 3D Printer



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