3D printing is a promising new dimension in medicine

Two women in white lab coats are focused on and touching a piece of machinery on a tabletop. The machine is made primarily of white plastic, but also has some metal parts, and it has some cables extending out from it. The woman in the left of the frame has long, dark blonde hair. She is seated and wears glasses. The other woman stands to the first woman's left. She also wears glasses and has short, dark hair.

Master’s student Martha Fitzgerald (left) and Dr. Jessica Sparks, associate professor in chemical, paper, and biomedical engineering, conduct research to create lifelike tissues with a 3-D printer.

Painful pressure ulcers often afflict the elderly and people with limited mobility. Better known as bedsores, these ulcers sometimes lead to life-threatening complications and can be costly to treat.

“They’re something that all long-term care facilities want to prevent in any way that they can,” says Jessica Sparks, an associate professor in the department of chemical, paper, and biomedical engineering at Miami University.

Sparks is collaborating with Miami nursing faculty Deborah Beyer and Brenda Barnes ’82 on a proposal to develop pressure ulcer models that are realistic in color and shape.

Their proposal involves additive manufacturing (AM) technology. AM — often referred to as 3-D printing — uses three-dimensional design data to deposit successive layers of metal, plastic, or other material until a three-dimensional solid item is complete.

“We’re going to use the models to train the frontline staff, who would be the most likely to see a very early-stage pressure ulcer developing on a patient,” Sparks says.

Those staff members could then call in a wound care specialist to administer treatment before the condition progresses.

“Using 3-D printing in the field of medical simulation for training has lots of potential,” Sparks says. “Those two things should go together.”

Sparks, Beyer, and Barnes plan to request funding for their project from the Ohio Board of Regents’ Workforce Development and Equipment Facility program within the next two years. They are encouraged that recent conversations with a large regional hospital and wound care specialists at the Veterans Affairs health system have generated enthusiasm for this work.

“Their response makes it clear there’s good potential demand for what we’re trying to create,” Sparks says. “I’m confident we’ll have a good test platform for this technology.”

As valuable as models like this are for training, Sparks thinks they’re just beginning to tap into AM technology. With pressure ulcers, she explains, patient-specific anatomy is less important.

The same is not true for other clinical applications, such as a tumor with a specific geometry. In those situations, surgeons need to be able to practice with 3-D models that resemble the real tumor as much as possible, Sparks says.

Commercially available AM equipment can use anatomical data from a CT scan or an MRI to print the type of patient-specific training models Sparks envisions for surgeons. But, these models lack tissue-like mechanical properties.

“Some 3-D printers can print in flexible materials,” Sparks says, “but those materials don’t do a great job of mimicking biological tissue.”

Sparks wants to change that. Aided by a research incentive grant from Miami’s Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, she and her biomedical engineering colleagues Jason Berberich and Justin Saul are developing new 3-D printing platforms. They use materials that look and feel more like human skin, muscle, blood vessels, and other soft tissue.

The research incentive grant also supports the work of research assistant and master’s student Martha Fitzgerald ’13, who plans to write her thesis on the techniques she has helped develop.

Together with Sparks and Berberich, Fitzgerald has written an oral presentation that she will deliver at the Biomedical Engineering Society national conference in October, an “excellent opportunity for Martha,” Sparks says.

Other students have benefited from work in Sparks’ lab as well. Last year, Sparks, Berberich, and Saul supervised two teams of senior biomedical and chemical engineering majors whose yearlong, self-directed capstone projects focused on the new 3-D printing platforms in development.

One of the two teams won a prestigious Undergraduate Research Award, which provides financial support for the university’s most promising faculty-mentored research by students. Sparks and Berberich plan to mentor two more teams this year.

“By involving students in research — where there is no recipe or cookbook that tells you, ‘If you follow all these steps, you will get the exact answer you’re expecting’ — I help student engineers develop not only technical skills, but also the problem-solving skills they’ll need to meet the growing demand for AM in the economy,” Sparks says.

Her commitment to mentoring may mean that her contributions to the field of AM will extend well beyond her own discoveries and innovations to influence those of future generations of engineers.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Image of hand holding hydrogel by Heather Beattey Johnston, OARS. Image of Fitzgerald and Sparks by Jeff Sabo, Miami University.

This post originally appeared as an article in The Miamian, the magazine of Miami University’s alumni association.  It is re-used here with permission.

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