3D printers could be used to treat disease

High-tech laboratories at the University of Florida may represent the future of medicine. Chemists, physicists, engineers and medical researchers all work under one roof as a collaborative incubator of innovation.

ARMI, short for Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, is on the cutting-edge of science and engineering.

Associate professor Thomas Angelini, Ph.D., was part of the project since its inception. He says the UF center is one of a handful of centers poised to share an almost $300 million grant funded by both federal and private industry dollars.

“This institute is part of a larger network of institutes that whose goal whose mission is to revitalize manufacturing in the U.S. and this institute is focused on bio-manufacturing,” Dr. Angelini says.

Part of that bioengineering includes 3-D printing. 

“The real invention here is the material we are printing into, the micro-gel support bath,” Ph.D. student Christopher O'Bryan explained as he showed us the printer in action.  

O’Bryan believes it is a game changer.

He says the liquid support bath contains salts that stabilize silicone - the substrate their commercial printer uses - allowing it to create intricate and complex structures.

To demonstrate its strength under pressure, they've also created tubing that can be adapted for use in medical implants and devices, such as brain shunts.

“We've actually hooked this up to pipe fittings and flown water through it that goes in the bottom and comes out the top,” O'Bryan explains. 

The printer was busy creating a mechanically woven lattice. It appears solid while suspended in the clear liquid hydro-gel bath, but it's not. In order to transform into its final, flexible form, it must first be cured using UV light, similar to gels used in nail salons.

Using CT and MRI scans as templates, these researchers envision the printers creating surgical implants that can be used to repair traumatic defects, including facial deformities. They believe the personalized contouring and sizing will decrease cost, since it will be made to fit the patient, and will help improve symmetry and aesthetics.

Dr. Angelini is currently experimenting with what he calls "tumeroids" made of microtissues. Simply put, they're tiny, 3-D printed layers of human cancer cells.

“That's definitely one of our goals, to take cells out of a patient, expand them, print them into micro-tissues and then test the response of those micro-tissues to drugs,” he explained.

Testing drugs like chemo, immunotherapy, or experimental products directly on a patients’ specific tumor cells, is a process he hopes will soon create a new industry and 21st-century jobs.

Dr. Angelini's vision is to manufacture, "...thousands and thousands of small tissue… 3-D printed in a sterile environment, packaged and sent to companies throughout the nation for testing and development of new drugs.”

Ultimately, they also hope 3-D printing will decrease the need for animal experimentation, improve targeted therapy, and help us learn more about human cancers as we strive for cures.