Open Source Innovation Could Put a 3D Bioprinter in Your Living Room
Lane Long posted on April 20, 2018 |
A recent breakthrough in 3D printing could make portrayals like this one more realistic. (Image courtesy of RDmag.com.)
A recent breakthrough in 3D printing could make portrayals like this one more realistic. (Image courtesy of RDmag.com.)

Improving Public Access to Bioprinting Technology

3D bioprinting traditionally requires high-level expertise, proprietary technology and a five-figure investment. A team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University setout to change all that. In a paper published earlier this month in HardwareX, the group released the design of a fully functional 3D bioprinter it built by altering a widely available desktop 3D machine. The team’s innovation could be a game changer in terms of the overall accessibility of bioprinting.

An Open Source Solution

            In the simplest terms, this advancement allows personal-use 3D printers to be converted into machines with bioprinting capabilities by installing a syringe-based, large volume extruder (LVE) to the existing model.The engineers involved with the project were determined that their LVE 3D technology should be open source in every sense.

In an effort to “democratize” access to this type of machinery, the team set out to develop a 3D printer for biomedical applications that would meet a number of requirements. First, it needed to be both legally and practically available to the public. Next, it had to be largely compatible with industry-standard desktop models. Finally, the additional components necessary to convert the machine had to be reasonably priced.

To satisfy the first requirement, the paper, titled“Large volume syringe pump extruder for desktop 3D printers,” walks readers through the entire process of building their own bioprinter. It functions as both a report on the team’s findings and a how-to manual on their technique. To meet the second requirement, the team found a way to modify typical desktop 3D systems by installing a syringe-based, LVE without otherwise altering their configurations. The affordability of the modifying components checks the final boxby default; when a proprietary, closed-source 3D bioprinter retails for$20,000, there’s a lot of room to improve on price.

Biomedical (and Economic) Implications

Remarkably, the team’s new design can produce higher quality prints of artificial human tissue than those produced by the exorbitantly expensive commercial bioprinters on the market today. Conventional 3D printing for biomedical applications—if there is such a thing—involves a fundamental trade-off. When bioprinters use a small volume of material, designers have a high degree of control. The size of an artificial organ or organ system, however, has up to this point been inversely related to resolution. Anything as big as, say, a human heart winds up relatively low quality when produced in all but the most expensive bioprinters. The new LVE 3D bioprinter suffers from this constraint to a far lesser extent. The Carnegie Mellon study indicates that such devices can print alginate-based tissue up to and beyond the scale of a heart without compromising on detail.

Open source hardware and software are helping 3D printing solve big health problems.

The prospect of LVE 3D-style printers being further refined for biomedical applications looks especially good in light of the technology’s costs. The researchers hoped from the beginning that their work would put bioprinting technology at more people’s fingertips. With a final conversion cost of under $500, it looks like they’ve gotten their wish. Widespread dissemination of this conversion method was intentional from the start; now, it looks inevitable. The improved access to bioprinting that LVE 3D printers will facilitate should catalyze even faster innovation going forward.

For more on how 3D printing is taking over the field of biomedical engineering, check out How to Engineer a Kidney.


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