Researchers Convert MakerBot Replicator to 3D Print Biological Materials to Aid in Breast Cancer Research

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3dp_cancerresearch_cmu_upmc_logoResearchers from University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) are teaming up to develop a method to better diagnose breast cancer, and learn to detect high-risk cases. This could lead to more life-saving diagnoses and potentially reduce the number of unnecessary surgeries performed on women each year. The research team was awarded a two-year $800,000 grant from the US Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program of the Department of Defense to develop 3D printers capable of printing artificial breast ducts that could lead to discovering the causes of a particularly invasive and life-threatening type of breast cancer called Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS).

While only twenty to fifty percent of patients who have DCIS non-invasive tumors in the breast ducts will end up developing invasive breast cancer, doctors currently have no way to determine which of those cases will actually develop cancer and which will not. Unfortunately that leaves patients with a terrible choice, either treat a condition that may not need to be treated or risk the cancer quickly spreading throughout their body. Treatments for DCIS include a lumpectomy with radiation treatments and sometimes a full mastectomy. Some patients also undergo hormone therapies that have several rare but potentially life-threatening side effects like blood clots, stroke or uterine cancer. According to UPMC breast cancer surgeon and the co-investigator of the DOD grant Priscilla McAuliffe doctors are most certainly over treating the condition.

The process of 3D bioprinting with a converted MakerBot Replicator.

The process of 3D bioprinting with a converted MakerBot Replicator.

The UPMC and CMU researchers are hoping to learn more about DCIS by 3D printing the conduit between the mammary gland and the nipple called a breast duct. Currently the only way to study specific types of cancer cells is to either culture tumor cells in a petri dish or to grow them under the skin of a rodent. Unfortunately neither of those methods gives researchers the ability to trace how or even if the structure of the breast duct impacts the spread of the tumors. By creating artificial breast ducts the researchers hope to grow tumors in a lab setting and discover potential biomarkers that will determine which patients with breast duct lesions will end up developing DCIS.

The MakerBot Replicator converted by Feinberg.

The MakerBot Replicator converted by Feinberg. [Image: Adam Feinberg, via Pitt News]

“You can start to ask the question, given a certain kind of tumor: Is it more invasive in certain architectures? You can change now each independently so you can start to understand what the mechanism is. Maybe the architecture itself, regardless of the kind of tumor, would promote invasion. Or maybe it’s not the architecture and it’s purely the cells,” explained the co-principal investigator of the DOD grant and a materials science and biomedical engineering professor at CMU, Adam Feinberg, to Pitt News.

The research being conducted with the DOD grant is based on an article that Feinberg published in the Science Advances research journal in October 2015 detailing how he was able to replicate delicate soft tissue structures using a 3D printer. Feinberg converted an original MakerBot Replicator to 3D print biological material using a custom-built syringe pump extruder. The extruder was itself 3D printed in ABS and PLA parts before the MakerBot was converted to use it. The syringe pump extruder deposits special hydrogel inks in a slurry of gelatin which acts as the support structure for the 3D printed biological matter. Feinberg describes the 3D printed structures as the fruit that is found in Jell-O, and the gelatin slurry is what holds the “fruit” in place.

The 3D printed syringe pump extruder.

The 3D printed syringe pump extruder.

“The challenge with these materials is that they’re super soft. They collapse under their own weight. They’re kind of like Jell-O. A block of Jell-O would sit there just fine, like a cube. But once you try to make an intricate 3D structure, it would just fall apart,” Feinberg continued.

A dual extruder version of the syringe pump extruder.

A dual extruder version of the syringe pump extruder.

The conversion of the MakerBot was a fairly simple process, especially considering the first Replicator was open sourced so it is easy to convert and modify. Because the standard FDM extruder was simply replaced with the syringe, the MakerBot software didn’t even need to be modified. Feinberg only needed to have new G-code written to correspond to the size and printing speeds of the new extruder. Feinberg has made the 3D printed components of his syringe pump extruder, dubbed the Replistruder, open source so other researchers can use his methods for their own research projects. The STL files — created by TJ Hinton of CMU’s Regenerative Biomaterials and Therapeutics Group — are available for download here.

Being able to determine which patients have the markers or breast duct architecture that leads to the development of DCIS could prevent a huge group of women from undergoing risky and painful treatments that are not needed. Not only would it save patients from unnecessary radiation treatments and surgeries, but it will cut down on healthcare costs associated with treating breast cancer and lost income due to being out of work while recovering. Discuss over in the 3D Printed Hydrogels forum at

[Source: Pitt News]


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