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Want Improved Medical Treatment? How About Custom-Designed Patient Therapies

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A new multimaterial process developed by researchers in the UK can be used to fabricate prosthetics and even medications tailored to patients.

Researchers have developed a multi-material approach to 3D printing custom artificial body parts and other medical devices for better shape and durability well as bacterial resistance.

A team from the University of Nottingham led by Yinfeng He, transitional assistant professor in the faculty of engineering, developed a computer algorithm that can design and manufacture 3D-printed objects comprised of two polymer materials of differing stiffness that also prevent the build-up of bacterial biofilm.

The aim of the technology is to combine multi-material 3D-printing techniques for optimized performance for custom medical prosthetics and other devices, He, who also is a researcher at the university’s Center for Additive Manufacturing, told Design News.

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A bacteria-repelling artificial finger joint with customized strength distribution made with a new multi-material 3D-print process developed by researchers at the University of Nottingham’s Center for Additive Manufacturing.

“Through this technique, we are able to pick the materials based on the specific needs of a patient, combine them, and shape them into a device so it can perfectly fit the patient,” he explained to us. “To achieve this, we are continuously exploring new chemistry and adjusting our 3D printers to ensure the materials will ‘collaborate’ in one device and serve the patient better as a ‘team.’”

Meeting the Challenge

Because every person is different, it’s nearly impossible for mass-produced medical devices to suit the specific and complex needs of every patient, He said. To solve this problem, his team set out to create a single, intelligent design process that can be applied to 3D-print medical devices with customizable shapes and functions.

The innovation the team developed has two key aspects. One is in materials, He told us. The team created two new ink formulations—each of which demonstrates different mechanical performances but both of which are resistant to bacterial biofilm formation--that are compatible with inkjet-based 3D printing, he explained.

“The success of these two inks enabled us to apply the latest inkjet-based multi-material 3D printing technology to design and produce medical devices with not only customizable geometries but also customizable functions,” he told Design News.

The second aspect the team created was to apply a generative algorithm to design the distribution of each material to maximize its unique performance and guide the 3D printing process, he said.

“The main finding of our research is that when we are combining different materials into one device, we found a computer-aided method to design a ‘blueprint’ for each material so they can be assigned to the position where they are most needed,” he told us. “The overall performance of such a device is better than randomly arranged ones.”

Promising Results and Future Goals

Using their technology, the team successfully produced a bespoke finger-joint implant device that can combat bacterial resistance and infection as well as 3D-printed pills that can deliver medicines based on the need of the patient, researchers said.

However, these objects are the tip of the iceberg for what they believe they can fabricate using their technology, he told us.

“We believe this multi-material 3D printing technology combined with computer-aided design could bring a revolution in the production of customized devices with customizable functions,” he told Design News.

Researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Advanced Science.

The team’s next steps will be to work with collaborators to demonstrate that these complex and personalized devices can be used on actual medical patients, He said. Researchers also will explore the use of this new design and manufacturing toolset in other medical devices with more customizable functions, he added.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga, and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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