By Mary Chiappetta
LSU Manship School News Service
Imagine a world where doctors tailor medications for your body, where they can kill cancer while repairing the tissue around it and where kids who break their glasses can print new custom-made pairs.
Sounds like science fiction, right?
In universities around Louisiana, researchers are harnessing the futuristic power of 3D printing and trying to catch up with other states in using this technology to help people.
Dr. David K. Mills, professor and biomedical research director at Louisiana Tech University, is exploring how to produce pills and biomedical devices with 3D printing to let doctors customize care in ways they never could with standard medications for general consumption.
“Instead of prescribing a large antibiotic pill, your doctor can prescribe one made specifically for you,” he said.
Mills’ lab has discovered how to help patients with rhinitis, a chronic nasal inflammation caused by allergies, breathe better by implanting a tiny 3D-printed device that releases just the right amount of medicine directly into the patient’s nose.
This is an improvement over current treatment, which requires an “overdose” of medication for enough to make its way to the nose, Mills said. He expects to submit this project for FDA approval in the next few months.
“We are living in amazing times,” Mills said. “Future medicine is now.”
3D printing works by breaking down three-dimensional designs into two-dimensional layers. The printer nozzle forces material–most often thin plastic filaments, metal powders, or biomaterials for medical uses–into these 2D layers at high temperatures. These malleable layers build the 3D object.
3D printing also opens up new ways to tackle cancer, Mills said. His lab is designing 3D-printed micro particles that emit a low magnetic field when implanted in bone marrow tumors, which are often responsible for cancer’s full-body spread.
He said this approach could enable doctors to “target and ‘cook’ only the tumor cells.”
The micro particles also would carry regenerative materials, like medications, to help the tissue regrow while the tumor was being destroyed, Mills said.
He said 3D technology is opening doors in biomedical research that will make personalized treatments more accessible and cost-effective. That could particularly help people who lack health insurance.
Mills said that the research in Louisiana on biomedical 3D printing lags behind some other states partly because of the frequent cuts in spending on higher education over the past decade. Louisiana’s universities also have not joined together to share resources, a model used in other states. He said that could help speed research here.
3D printing also can improve the lives of disabled individuals. For instance, two LSU mechanical engineering seniors, Macie Coker and April Gaydos, have collaborated with the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired (LSVI) to create replacement eyeglass frames for students.
Currently, when their glasses break, students at the K-12 school must either tape them together or hold them on, said Heather Lavender, education and outreach coordinator for the Consortium for Innovation of Manufacturing and Materials grant proposal at LSU’s engineering college.
Worse, many LSVI students who live on campus during the semester face long stretches of work with broken glasses, according to Leslie Bello, the school’s director.
This program could change that. The idea was the brainchild of an LSVI teacher, Bello said. Coker, Gaydos and a third student, Lucy Guo, who has since left the project, stepped in to harness their 3D-printing expertise.
The program would work by scanning each student’s glasses frames at the start of each school year. These scans would be saved to a file that faculty members could modify with the software for 3D printing.
“Whenever the kids’ glasses break, they’ll get a new pair of 3D printed glasses that they get to watch being made,” Coker said. “Over a period of four hours, you can watch something literally being made out of nothing.”
The glasses project is waiting on funding of $80,000 to purchase the scanner and the program needed to make and save copies of the students’ glasses frames. Coker said her team is using the time to teach the LSVI faculty how to use the software they will need once the project goes live.
3D printing technology also could give the students an accessible, tactile way to learn about science.
“With the LSVI kids, it isn’t a question of ability; it’s a question of accessibility,” Lavender said. “It comes down to what has been made accessible to help them to break the barrier of the disability.”