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Groundbreaking Research Shows How Sensors Can Be 3D Printed on Contracting Organs

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Major research has come out of the University of Minnesota that could have huge implications in healthcare. Mechanical Engineers and computer scientists have developed a new 3D printing technique that allows electronic sensors to be directly printed on organs that are expanding and contracting. 

The new technique uses motion capture technology like what is used to create movies, and besides having implications within the general field of healthcare, it could be specifically applied to diagnose and monitor the lungs of individuals with COVID-19. 

The research was published in Science Advances, a scientific journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 

3D Printing Technique

The research is based on a 3D printing technique that was discovered two years ago. The technique was first used on a hand that rotated and moved left to right, with electronics directly printed on the skin of the hand. It has now been developed even further to work on organs such as the lungs or heart, which expand and contract, leading to a change in the shape or distortion. 

Michael McAlpine is a University of Minnesota mechanical engineering professor and senior researcher on the study.

“We are pushing the boundaries of 3D printing in new ways we never even imagined years ago,” said McAlpine. “3D printing on a moving object is difficult enough, but it was quite a challenge to find a way to print on a surface that was deforming as it expanded and contracted.”

3D Printed Deformable Sensors

Development and Future Applications

The researchers first used a balloon-like surface and a specialized 3D printer. They utilized motion capture tracking markers, like the ones used to create special effects in movies, in order to help the 3D printer adapt to the expansion and contraction movements on the surface. 

After using the balloon-like surface, the researchers tested it on an animal lung that was artificially inflated. It proved to be a success, and a soft hydrogel-based sensor was printed directly on the surface. 

According to McAlpine, this technology could be used in the future to print directly on a pumping heart.

“The broader idea behind this research, is that this is a big step forward to the goal of combining 3D printing technology with surgical robots,” said McAlpine. “In the future, 3D printing will not be just about printing but instead be part of a larger autonomous robotic system. This could be important for diseases like COVID-19 where health care providers are at risk when treating patients.

The research team also included lead author Zhijie Zhu, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, as well as Hyun Soo Park, assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Department of Computer Science and Engineering. 

The work was supported by Medtronic and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health.