3D printing, also referred to as “additive manufacturing”, is not only a game-changing innovation for rapid prototyping, but is also poised to transform many industries in the years to come, healthcare and medical devices included.

As 3D printing continues to advance and mature, novel materials, processes, and applications applicable to medical biomaterials such as silicone will continue to deliver better patient outcomes for existing treatments, while opening the doors to entirely new ones.

New Medical 3D Printing Materials

From diagnostics to growing tissues for research, recent research in new 3D printing materials illustrate the promise of this technology.

For instance, engineers at the University of Illinois have designed a 3D printer which can make structures out of isomalt, the same sugar alcohol throat lozenges are made of. The fact that isomalt dissolves in water makes it a great material out of which to fabricate scaffolding for growing tissues, providing researchers the ability to study them in three dimensions.

Another innovation, from engineers at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, involves movement rather than stationary structures. A team there has produced a smart gel which can be 3D printed into shapes which move and grab objects in salt water when an electric field is applied. Potential applications for this hydrogel-based material range from providing the “muscle” for artificial hearts to drug delivery.

Even living cells—bacterial ones, at least—can now be 3D printed. A group of MIT engineers have created an ink containing genetically programmed bacterial cells and figured out a way to 3D print it. Like the smart gel from Rutgers, this living ink is based on hydrogel, which provides the bacteria an aqueous environment they can live in. The live bacteria cells are genetically programmed to react to different stimuli, such as the presence of specific substances. The MIT team demonstrated their innovation by creating a “living tattoo”: a patch made of this new ink whose different segments are programmed to detect a different chemical and change color.

Meanwhile, silicone continues to gain adoption for medical 3D printing. The additive manufacturer Carbon recently announced the release of a biocompatible silicone resin. In addition to being biocompatible, this new silicone resin is soft and tear-resistant as well—perfect for medical wearables.

Novel Biomaterial 3D Printing Processes

Hydrogels also play an important role in the development of new biomaterial 3D printing processes. One recent example of this is a novel stereolithography 3D printing method developed at UCLA, which currently uses four different bio-inks. Up to now, biomaterial stereolithography has been limited to just a single material. Central to this new technique is a custom mircofluidics chip with multiple inlets, one for each biomaterial to be printed.

For practical medical applications, 3D printing of medical biomaterials requires the purity and cleanliness required of all other fabrication technologies used for medical devices. Recent material and process 3D printing breakthroughs in the lab are great, but patients require (and deserve) additive manufacturing solutions which reliably produce devices which are free from contamination, something currently not possible with many existing 3D printing systems.

One startup looking to change that is Kumovis, which has recently developed a 3D printer for the engineering-grade polymer PEEK (a popular choice for high-strength implants). Kumovis effectively designed a miniature cleanroom into their 3D printer, protecting the implants from being contaminated with foreign particles during printing.

Biomaterial 3D Printing Applications

Ultimately, clinical applications are the end goal of all this material research and invention of new additive manufacturing techniques. Additive manufacturing is already having a positive impact in patients’ lives, and as more advances cross over from laboratories to clinical trials and regulatory approval, biomaterial 3D printing will become even more commonplace.

Additive manufacturing is a great process for producing small batches of custom parts. When medical 3D printing is combined with imaging technologies such as CT scans, implants and other medical devices can be custom made for a patient, leading to better device performance and lower risks of complications.

A recent study involving heart valves shows how CT scanning, digital modeling, and 3D printing can work together to reduce mortality rates for patients who have a high risk of developing a paravavular leak (PVL) after a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR). The lead author of the study, Dr. Sergey Gurevich remarked on the how this technology successfully prevented PVLs, “We are very encouraged to see such positive outcomes for the feasibility of 3D printing in patients with heart valve disease. These patients are at a high risk of developing a leak after TAVR, and anything we can do to identify and prevent these leaks from happening is certainly helpful.”

Presently, 3D printing of medical biomaterials is a hotbed of experimentation and advances in printing materials and processes. Regardless of what breakthroughs actually break through to clinical use, medical device OEMs can remain confident that ProMed will stay on the leading edge of biomaterial 3D printing.

The Future of 3D Printing with Medical Biomaterials Such as Silicone
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The Future of 3D Printing with Medical Biomaterials Such as Silicone
3D printing, also referred to as “additive manufacturing”, is not only a game-changing innovation for rapid prototyping, but is also poised....
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