Jul 14, 2016 | By Andre

I sometimes reflect back to the autumn of 2012 and my bus voyage down to New York City where attended my first ever Maker Faire. It was a spectacle jam packed with robots, gadgets and an astonishing number of 3D printers and I was inspired by the seemingly endless expanse of explorers of the new age encountered every step of the way.

This said, out of all the talks I attended, a short presentation given by Jordan Miller (now an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice University) under a sparely populated and easily missable tent struck a cord with me. He spoke at length about how the open-source 3D printer movement was making it possible for him and his team to experiment with 3D bio-printing when the larger brands were completely closed to the idea.

Miller suggested the publicly traded companies wouldn’t let him in with his research proposals because “they won't release the schematics, they won't explain to you how to make it sterile. They won't tell you about the materials they use to make things, and it's really, it's bad for science. They're seeing it as an appliance and a single state machine. Where really what you want is an open technology platform.”

The notion was that he and his team had an approach to bio-printing that was potentially revolutionary but they were prevented from accessing available technology because it was closed off from experimentation and tinkering. This is until the open-source 3D printer movement took hold and opened up his research potential.

So when I learned of a small group of researchers from Advancing Innovations Biosciences that had developed a bio-sample collection solution using an open source Printrbot Play 3D printer (along with modifications) for $750 vs. the presumably closed competition's $20,000+ unit I took it as a small victory for the open-source.

The research in question is based around the of isolating and extracting of nucleic acid samples followed by amplification techniques to better clarify results. The tricky part here is that doing so is, well, tricky and that an automated process is necessary but at the same time, traditionally expensive.

What the team at AI Biosciences did was take a low-cost Printrbot Play, modify it by replacing the extruder with a magnet based tip-comb attachment and further use that to conduct particle-based nucleic acid extractions. From there, they programmed the 3D printer to move about its available axis to collect up to 12 samples simultaneously in under 13 minutes. On top of this, they used the 3D printer’s heated bed to supply heat for water-based polymerase chain reactions (PCRs). This repurposing of the 3D printer’s mechanical components would never have been possible in a closed-source environment.

In addition to figuring out a way to do something that would cost upwards of $15,000 - $80,000 up until now, they also shortened the 35-cycle PCR protocol by up to 33% by eliminating the temperature ramping needed in most commercial thermal cyclers. I do admit that this may seem like Latin to some, but at the same time feel like a Eureka moment to others.

A lot of what worked for them falls in line conveniently with what a 3D printer is capable of mechanically before being repurposed for nucleic acids extraction. The paper suggests that the extruder heating limits are “high enough for DNA denaturation.” The built in heated bed is also convenient for incubation, isothermal amplification and even PCR reactions (e.g., 95°C for DNA denaturing).

Custom g-code was used to program the movements needed for extraction (again, only easily possible with an open-source platform) and possibly most importantly of all (well, from a 3D print purists perspective) they write that “the changes we made to the 3D printers are minor enough that they are reversible; hence, printing capability of the 3D printer was not lost.” So after their groundbreaking research, it is indeed possible to go back to printing Yodas and little plastic trinkets to their hearts content.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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