Why 3-D Printing Has a Medical Materials Problem
March 27, 2014
Researchers used 3-D printing to create an interlaced stack of electrodes layer by layer, producing the working anode and cathode of a microbattery. (Image courtesy of Harvard University, Jennifer Lewis)
Machines for 3-D printing work with materials selected for relative ease of use with rapid prototyping, not making medical devices, said Anthony Vicari, research associate at Boston-based Lux Research.
“I may have 500 grades of injection-molded plastics to choose from. But you’re not going to get the properties you want from the majority of the parts,” Vicari said.
The solution, Vicari said, is to “get more of the conventional materials into printable forms.”
Ankur Chandra, MD, is a vascular surgeon and biomedical engineer at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Rather than implant a stent in a damaged artery, Chandra would love to be able to 3-D print a replacement artery out of a more biocompatible material than what stents are made of.
But Chandra does not think there is presently a material used in 3-D printing that would allow this do be done speedily.
“I can’t sit in the operating room for 24 hours or leave the patient without an artery, though,” Chandra said.
3-D printing equipment makers will undoubtedly focus on finding new materials to print that will work better in medical devices, said Gerald Berberian, territory sales representative in the Northeast Region for Stratasys (Edina, MN).
Moderator Michael Drues, PhD, president of Grafton, MA–based Vascular Sciences, gently chided Berberian.
“Answers are only as good as the questions we ask. … You’re telling us that the materials are what is holding it up. Maybe we need to come up with another machine that can print the material,” Drues said.
Vicari listed a number of examples of researchers already stretching the boundaries when it comes to 3-D printing materials:
A research team led by Harvard engineering professor Jennifer Lewis has developed 3-D printing “inks” as electrochemically active materials, enabling the printing of miniature batteries.
MIT researcher have been exploring creating bone through 3-D printing bone-like polymeric substance that fuses soft and stiff materials in patterns that imitate those found in bones and other natural materials. Similar research is taking place at the University of Nottingham.