3D printing is a technology that allows making various objects quickly. It is very good for prototyping and making unique things that cannot be mass manufactured. Among those things could be medical implants, because our bodies are very different. Now scientists from the University of Birmingham developed a technique that could be used to print soft biomaterials, such as gels and collagens.
3D printers are very good with many materials, including metal (such as titanium, aluminium, steel), plastic (BPA, PVC, ABS and many others) and even concrete. However, using 3D printing technology for soft materials so far has been challenging. The problem is that soft object sag and deform. If this happens during the printing process, the object is going to be very inaccurate, crooked and, possibly unusable. Unsupported structures are not friends with 3D printing technology, but now scientists think they know how to solve that.
They’ve developed a Suspended Layer Additive Manufacturing (SLAM) technique, which uses a polymer-based hydrogel. Various soft materials can be injected into this substance, creating a 3D structure. This hydrogel has self-healing properties and provides a structure to soft object, making it possible to print using various unconventional 3D printing materials, like gels and collagens. Scientists say that this technique allows for extreme precision, because the object being printed cannot sag or otherwise disform.
Professor Liam Grover, leader of the research team, said: “The hydrogel we have designed has some really intriguing properties that allow us to print soft materials in really fine detail. It has huge potential for making replacement biomaterials such as heart valves or blood vessels, or for producing biocompatible plugs, that can be used to treat bone and cartilage damage”.
Self-healing properties of the hydrogel is what makes it so perfect for this application. Molecules can be severed, twisted and separated, but still maintain the original shape, regardless of what the printer is doing to it. Previously a similar approach has been tested using gels that have been minced to form a slurry bath. This didn’t work quite so well. SLAM technique could make it very easy to print unique, patient-tailored implants.
It will still take some time until SLAM can be introduced into a clinical setting. However, in the future every hospital could have a 3D printer, used to make custom implants. Alternatively, several hospitals could be linked to one 3D printing centre.
Source: University of Birmingham