Microneedle patches, handheld diagnostic machines, and better sensing capabilities, as well as 3D bioprinting, are just a few of the technologies coming to a doctor’s office near you—or maybe even into your home—in the next decade.
Even when it’s moving at a slow speed, watching Rohit Bhargava’s 3D printer in action is mesmerizing. As the pointed tip of the printer head moves, it begins to extrude a thin, shining tube of what looks like plastic. The nozzle moves away and begins to draw out another tube. Then suddenly they’re connected; joined by other tubes to become a complex three-dimensional shape: a tiny, anatomically accurate replica of a heart.
The tubes aren’t plastic; they’re made of isomalt, a soluble material. And though the heart is impressive, Bhargava’s ultimate targets are much more subtle: ducts and vessels in the human body where cancer can take root. These delicate filigrees are seeded with cells from the human body, then enclosed in wobbly cylinders of collagen where the isomalt dissolves. What remains are models of real human anatomies made of living cells: a 3D platform to study disease as though you’re within the body itself.
As the head of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s innovative Cancer Center, Bhargava has been plugging away at injecting more advanced engineering solutions into medical problems. The freeform 3D printer is one of the first futuristic achievements of that effort.
But Bhargava’s project is just one of a wave of technologies that stand to transform medicine and healthcare as we know it; to make them faster, more accurate, and hopefully, drastically more affordable. Microneedle patches, handheld diagnostic machines, and better sensing capabilities, as well as 3D bioprinting, are just a few of the technologies coming to a doctor’s office near you—or maybe even into your home—in the next decade.
“Something fundamental has to change in healthcare. Policy is only part of it,” Bhargava said. “Look at phones and laptops, which used to be so much more expensive but have gotten cheaper as the technology has gotten better. If we bring engineering into healthcare, taking basic knowledge and converting it into usable solutions, we have a chance to reduce costs and increase quality in a similar way.”
3D PRINTING THE BODY
Driven by complex mathematical algorithms and capable of printing tubes as tiny as 10 microns across (a fifth the size of a human hair), Bhargava’s printer differs from standard ones in that it doesn’t deposit one layer at a time. The hollow filaments it extrudes can all be interconnected, creating highly complex frameworks on which cells can grow and through which bodily fluids can pass.
A target anatomy—say, a breast duct or lymphatic vessel—can be replicated in the tens or hundreds or even thousands, making experiments highly and quickly reproducible. By introducing tumor cells to each sample, researchers can zero in on the behavior and responses of an individual person’s cancer to various treatments and body environments.
This approach would make it easier to study and understand the differences between healthy and diseased tissue.
This 3D-printing technology, along with high-powered, machine-learning-driven infrared microscopes that are able to image the unique chemical environment of an individual’s disease (and are also developed by Bhargava’s research group), are helping bespoke clinical care to become a reality.
“It’s not just the cells but the blood, the chemistry, the molecular environment, the tumor—everything present in the tissue,” Bhargava said. “What this will eventually allow us to do is to really personalize diagnoses by considering the entirety of the person’s tissue.”
At the University of Minnesota, Michael McAlpine has also been focused on 3D biologics, but with a kick.
“Do you have to replace biology with biology? Typically, you don’t,” McAlpine said. “We replace knee cartilage with titanium or a heart with a pacemaker—so do you need to replace a liver with a 3D-printed liver that’s made of the same cells as the original liver? Maybe you can print a better liver based on polymers with electronics.”
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