Growing life from a 3D printer: CSU molds education out of plastic

Video by Meg Dudenhoefer

Imagine needing to replace 75 percent of your skull. Imagine doctors telling you they could print one. Advancements in the field of 3D printing have gotten us to this point.

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“They just replaced someone’s skull — scanned his head, made a 3D model of his skull, printed it and replaced it in pieces,” said Dr. Erica Suchman, professor of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology (MIP).

Suchman says that medically, this will be huge for implants. More and more patients await transplants yearly. 3D medical images can be used to create a structure for a large organ, with cells being injected into the structure. No transplant necessary. Suchman adds that for bone breaks this could replace the previous method, which was inserting titanium rods into bones.

“Now they can go in and scan your bone, print a piece that’s the exact dimensions of your bone so it matches your bones perfectly,” Suchman said.

These pieces can then be re-introduced, much like in the skull replacement. She adds that for things like skin wounds, these printers can actually lay down cells.

“The idea is to scan the wound and print straight onto skin,” Suchman said.

In order to print these structures, medical scans are sectioned into paper-thin slices and processed, then distributed with biomaterials into a 3-dimensional scaffold. 3D printers at CSU are being used in much the same way, the only difference is the materials that are being used.

Suchman, along with many other CSU faculty, are beginning to use 3D printing for research and teaching aids. She says that while CSU doesn’t have a printer capable of printing organs, there are still many applications for the technology we have.

Two years in the making, David Prawell's 3D printing lab finally opened allowing engineering students to print out their projects and do research from a new dimension. Here, a student is preinting out a 3D image of the influenzia virus.
Two years in the making, David Prawell’s 3D printing lab finally opened allowing engineering students to print out their projects and do research from a new dimension. Here, a student is preinting out a 3D image of the influenzia virus.

Suchman said that 3D printing technology will change the way manufacturing is done — it is a “disruptive technology.” David Prawel describes it as additive manufacturing. Dr. Prawel is founder of the “Idea 2 Project lab” that does 3D printing and is housed at CSU. He and Suchman are both excited about this technology’s potential.

“You can make things much faster with lower cost and waste,” Prawel said. “The question is, how fast you can have your idea in your hand.”

Suchman, also a university distinguished teaching scholar, uses this technology for teaching aids, as does Dr. Brian Geiss, a virologist in the MIP department.

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“There is something about actually being able to hold it and see it from every angle, and feel how it actually might function,” Geiss said. “For students, this makes it more real.”

Geiss uses the technology in research to understand the structures of viruses, in order to design drugs against them. Viruses have a 3D structure that allows them to interact with host proteins and blocking the interaction site prevents the virus from causing disease. The 3D printer allows Geiss and his team to puzzle-piece that interaction.

Geiss said 3D printing technology is applicable in many different disciplines. He describes a procedure where surgeons use X-rays to construct bone and do individualized practice surgeries in order to determine the best possible methods for each patient.

“One of the nice things is that you’re limited only by your imagination, and, to some extent, the limitations of the materials,” Geiss said.

With such broad applications, students in many different disciplines can benefit from the technology. Especially since, the printing for students is free.

“We’ve done close to 2,000 projects in the six months we’ve been open,” Prawel says. “I’d say about 80 percent of our users are students.”

Prawel describes that student technology fees helped pay for the labs and for the time being, students without funded projects can use the facility for free.

The lab also does outreach into the community, setting up printers at local schools and introducing artisans to the possibilities of 3D printing.

3D printing technology is being used by artists and surgeons, students and faculty, and people from the community. Projects range from heart valve creation and surgery simulation to custom trumpet mouthpieces. 3D printers can even print themselves — Prawel says that many of the parts of the newer printers were made on older printers.

“More and more users of this technology is exactly what I’m trying to accomplish, because then people will understand it and benefit from it,” Prawerl said.

Collegian Science Beat Reporter Remi Boudreau can be reached at news@collegian.com.