Dec 9, 2016 | By Benedict

Sartorius Stedim Biotech, a biomanufacturing specialist based in Göttingen, Germany, has been awarded a patent for a disposable, single-use medical 3D printer that could be used to create sterile, biologically safe 3D printed organ models, bioprocessing equipment, and much more.

Could disposable 3D printers be used to 3D print kidneys?

In the not-too-distant future, 3D printers and new additive manufacturing systems could be as much a part of the medical environment as stethoscopes, scrubs, and MRI scanners. Before that day, however, 3D printing needs to change in some very important ways. Because while 3D scanning, CAD software, and 3D printing technology has allowed clinicians to create useful 3D printed models, implants, and even bioprinted tissue made from living human stem cells, the process of making 3D printed items sterile and safe for bodily contact can be a long and laborious one.

Those who regularly use 3D printing equipment will know that keeping 3D printers clean and functional is hard enough—but keeping them sterile to a hospital standard? Most (us included) wouldn’t know where to begin. Interestingly, German biomanufacturing company Sartorius has a new idea for medical 3D printing that could eradicate the problem of sterilization: single-use, disposable 3D printers that are delivered sterile, sealed, and ready for clinical use. The idea sounds odd, if not downright wasteful, but on closer inspection seems to have some logic behind it.

The patent for Sartorius’ “Single-use biological 3 dimensional printer” (US patent 9505173) was filed back in 2013, and was finally awarded to the German company last month. In the patent, inventor Frank Maggiore lays out plans for a 3D printer (or 3D bioprinter) that could be packaged in a fully aseptic condition, used once by a team of medical professionals, and then disposed of like a pair of rubber gloves or a used bandage. The German company has not started manufacturing any such 3D printer, but has stated that it is undertaking serious research into the concept, which it thinks could be used to create organ models for drug screening, amongst other things.

Image from the Sartorius patent for a single-use medical 3D printer

“The forming of three dimensional objects or the coating of three dimensional objects under sterile conditions, particularly a coating with biochemical materials, requires high effort to uphold the sterile conditions and to assemble the required apparatuses for forming or coating under sterile conditions,” the patent states. “Thus, it is a problem to provide a printing device, a printing system, and a printing method which are capable [of forming or coating] a material under sterile conditions in a reliable and easy manner.”

The solution to this problem? A 3D printer that is produced in sterile conditions, preserved in a sterile state, and which never needs further cleaning—because it gets thrown away after use. More precisely, the 3D printer described in the Sartorius patent would consist of a “sterilizable printer assembly, including at least one printing head, a printing platform, and a driving mechanism adapted to achieve a relative displacement between the…printing head and the printing platform along two or three degrees of freedom.” The 3D printer’s housing would enclose the printer assembly in a sterile manner, with an aseptic connector fluidly connected to a corresponding one on the print head.

Although 3D printing, in virtually all its forms, is getting cheaper and cheaper, the prospect of throwing away an entire machine after one print might still seem horrifying to some. But while the disposable 3D printer described in the Sartorius patent “is intended for single-use applications, and thus is disposable after use,” the simple machine could presumably be recycled or repurposed instead of going straight into the trash.

3D bioprinters like this one made by Organovo are changing medicine—but are they clean enough?

Something that definitely shouldn’t be thrown in the trash is Sartorius’ idea to develop a sterile 3D printer. Because while the very nature of the patent somewhat limits the ability of other companies to develop their own sterile, single-use 3D (bio)printers for medical use, the idea of creating 3D printing equipment that comes in a clinically safe, aseptic condition is an intriguing one, and should pique the interest of medical researchers with an interest in additive technologies. After all, you always feel safer when you see the nurse’s needle coming straight out of the packet, and the feeling would presumably be the same with a 3D printer.

Picture it: it’s 2030, and doctors have just 3D printed Joe-next-door a new kidney from his own stem cells. Now it’s your turn to get that new 3D printed liver churned out. Would you be happy to see the hygienist wipe Joe’s kidney cells off the build plate, or would you rather they used a completely new machine, fresh out of the box? Come to think of it, Sartorius might just have hit the big time.



Posted in 3D Printer



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