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3D printing plus magnets equals patient-specific medical devices

3D printing plus magnets equals patient-specific medical devices
The vast potential of 3D printing patient-specific medical devices can be a real game changer when it comes to pediatric devices. Because pediatrics is a relatively small market, medical technology companies typically do not devote a great deal of R&D into developing products for children. As a result, adult-sized devices are used to treat much smaller anatomies, with predictable results. Now, researchers at Northeastern University (Boston) have developed an innovative 3D-printing technology that uses magnetic fields to shape composite materials into patient-specific products.

The vast potential of 3D printing patient-specific medical devices can be a real game changer when it comes to pediatric devices. Because pediatrics is a relatively small market, medical technology companies typically do not devote a great deal of R&D into developing products for children. As a result, adult-sized devices are used to treat much smaller anatomies, with predictable results. Now, researchers at Northeastern University (Boston) have developed an innovative 3D-printing technology that uses magnetic fields to shape composite materials into patient-specific products. The fabrication of appropriately sized catheters for children, and specifically premature babies, is one of the primary applications.

Northeastern
Northeastern University Assistant Professor Randall Erb and doctoral
student Joshua Martin have developed an innovative 3D-printing
technology that uses composite materials and magnetics to fabricate
patient-specific medical devices. image courtesy Adam Glanzman/
Northeastern University.
Nearly 500,000 pre­ma­ture babies are born each year in the United States, and catheters are used to provide them with oxygen, nutrients, fluid and medications. However, catheters only come in stan­dard sizes and shapes, which means they cannot accom­mo­date the needs of all pre­ma­ture babies. "With neonatal care, each baby is a different size, each baby has a dif­ferent set of prob­lems," said Ran­dall Erb, Assis­tant Pro­fessor in Northeastern's Depart­ment of Mechan­ical and Industrial Engi­neering. "If you can print a catheter whose geom­etry is spe­cific to the indi­vidual patient, you can insert it up to a cer­tain crit­ical spot, you can avoid punc­turing veins, and you can expe­dite delivery of the contents," he explains in a news release published on the university website.

The technology developed by Erb's team aims to produce catheters and other bio­medical devices that are both stronger and lighter than cur­rent models while providing a custom fit. A paper on the new tech­nology appears in the Oct. 23 issue of Nature Communica­tions.


Following nature's lead in medical device design

Although com­posite mate­rials have been used in 3D printing before, the technology developed at Northeastern allows researchers to con­trol how the ceramic fibers are arranged and, thus, con­trol the mechan­ical prop­er­ties of the material itself, explains Joshua Martin, a doctoral candidate who participated in the project. That con­trol is crit­ical because the cor­ners, curves, and holes in a patient-specific device must be rein­forced by ceramic fibers arranged in a precise configu­ra­tion to make the device durable. This biomimetic process is inspired by natural composites found in everything from bones to trees.

"We are fol­lowing nature's lead," explains Martin, "by taking really simple building blocks but orga­nizing them in a fashion that results in really impres­sive mechan­ical prop­er­ties." Using mag­nets, Erb and Martin's 3D-printing method aligns each minus­cule fiber in the direc­tion that con­forms pre­cisely to the geom­etry of the item being printed.

"I believe our research is opening a new fron­tier in materials-science research," says Martin. "For a long time, researchers have been trying to design better mate­rials, but there's always been a gap between theory and exper­i­ment. With this technology . . . we can the­o­ret­i­cally deter­mine that a par­tic­ular fiber archi­tec­ture leads to improved mechan­ical prop­er­ties and we can also pro­duce those com­pli­cated architectures."

Fellow researcher Erb has received a $225,000 Small Busi­ness Tech­nology Transfer grant from the National Insti­tutes of Health to develop the neonatal catheters with a local com­pany. Erb is also working on the design of surgical implants using cal­cium phos­phate fibers and biocom­pat­ible plas­tics.

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