Dec 5, 2014 | By Alec

Lately we’ve been seeing more and more medical applications of 3D printing appearing, many of which are exciting revolutionary prosthetics or implants. Generally, these tend to be made for particularly rare and unfortunate cases that need a unique solution, and 3D printing is the premier technology for developing unique solutions. Just think of this custom-made skull mesh.

But now Australian scientists, led by Marc in het Panhuis, are working on a 3D printable medical innovation that could be used to help everyone. In het Panhuis is associate professor chemistry and head of the soft materials group at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Along with his research team, he has been developing a 3D printed hydrogel filled with sensors that can pick up on just about anything throughout our body. Could this gelatine-like printed substance be the future of medical diagnostics?

Photo: University of Wollongong

As professor in het Panhuis explained, their product basically consists of edible electronics in a printed substance, which ‘can perform a function and naturally go away.’ This field of ‘soft robotics’ generally require hydrogels (with enhances mechanical performances) to transport the sensors. Unfortunately, hydrogels are typically complicated structures to 3D print, as they’re generally to soft to work with.

Part of this research has therefore focussed on investigating options to allow hydrogels to be made more efficient; electrically conducting, tougher and more enduring. This will benefit numerous futuristic research fields that are currently being worked on, including bionic implants, sensors, controlled release systems and soft robotics.

Fortunately, in het Panhuis’s research group discovered that these gels can be far more robust by mixing two different polymers. They’ve come across a variety of options that all create these necessary molecular links, like gelatine with genipin, while gellan gum (often used in kitchens) mixed with sodium chloride. Such combinations result in stronger, more solid hydrogels that can be used for a host of applications. While printed hydrogels are already very conductive (as its mostly water), adding sodium ions makes them more so. ‘Cesium chloride gives even better conductivity that sodium chloride, but of course renders the material inedible.’

These workable materials are excellent carrying 3D printed sensors, though in het Panhuis and his team haven’t yet gotten anywhere near a printable and workable sensor. What these sensors would be capable of, is also unclear, but all part of the team’s ambitions for the next seven years of research.

Fortunately, in het Panhuis did speculate about this process at the Materials Research Society’s Fall Meeting in Boston this week. During a presentation, in het Panhuis talk about how these sensors could function and be ingested. Relying on their 4th generation 3D-Bioplotter, these hydrogels can be 3D printed to contain various tuneable electronic components and sensors. This hydrogel mixture, when cooled, can simply be consumed as a type of jelly. The sensors can then do whatever they’ve been programmed to do (check the state of your intestines, for instance) and pass that data to external device through an as-of-yet unspecified technology. Once their tasks are completed, the harmless sensors just disappear.

While there thus isn’t a lot known yet about how this would practically take shape – and it will likely take years before we reach anything close to a workable product – the entire concept is very intriguing. Just imagine: instead of needing a doctor to interpret your vague symptoms, you can just ingest some sensors in a gel shape, that will tell reveal exactly what’s wrong with you. It looks like 3D printing is rapidly making a name for itself in the medical world.

Posted in 3D Printing Technology

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