Method developed for creating patient-specific 3D printed medical devices

A team of researchers at Northeastern University has developed an innovative 3D printing technology that uses magnetic fields to shape composite materials into patient-specific products. The biomedical devices they are developing are claimed to be stronger and lighter than current models and will ensure an appropriate fit.

One specific application of this technology is developing patient-specific catheters, especially for premature newborns. Today's catheters only come in standard sizes and shapes, which means they cannot accommodate the needs of all premature babies.

Randall Erb, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and lead researcher on the project, said: “With neonatal care, each baby is a different size. 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.”

Composite materials have been used in 3D printing but, Erb says, what sets their technology apart is that it enables them to control how the ceramic fibres are arranged, thus controlling the mechanical properties of the material itself.

This is said to be critical for crafting devices with complex architectures, such as customised miniature biomedical devices. Within a single patient-specific device, the corners, curves, and holes must all be reinforced by ceramic fibres arranged in the right configuration to make the device durable.

Using magnets and stereolithography, this 3D printing method aligns each minuscule fibre in the direction that conforms precisely to the geometry of the item being printed.

Joshua Martin, the doctoral candidate who helped design and run the experiments, concluded: "I believe our research is opening a new frontier in materials-science research. 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're finally scratching the surface where we can theoretically determine that a particular fibre architecture leads to improved mechanical properties and we can also produce those complicated architectures."