In much of the United States, flu season is just beginning. Australia, however, has been in the midst of flu season for while now, and Queensland in particular is experiencing one of the worst flu epidemics it’s seen in a long time. There’s no cure for influenza, and vaccines have to be constantly reformulated as the virus mutates and comes back as a slightly different version of itself every year. Students at CQUniversity are working to better understand how those mutations happen, as well as the nature of other virus-borne diseases, with the help of 3D printing.

Studying the shape and structure of a virus can provide a better idea about how it survives and evolves, but it’s tough to get a full idea by looking through a microscope. Therefore, CQUniversity’s medical and engineering departments are working together to scale up several virus models to about the size of a softball and 3D print them, so that students can hold and examine them from every angle.

“CQUni has a state-of-the-art 3D printing facility which is largely used for engineering applications, however the Medical students will use this technology to begin to understand concepts about how viruses are formed and enter cells, and how parts of the virus can be targets for therapeutic intervention,” said Dr. Padraig Strappe, Senior Lecturer in Medical Laboratory Science. “Viruses cannot be seen with the naked eye and working with pathogenic viruses is untenable for undergraduates. 3D printing allows scaling up of the structure of these viruses so students can learn more about virus structure and shape, and relate these features to pathogenesis and recent outbreak.”

Dr. Padraig Strappe discusses one of the 3D printed models with his students.

He pointed to the recent influenza outbreak, saying that by 3D printing a scaled-up flu virus they could highlight the haemmagluttin, which is the part of the virus that changes from year to year.  Larger changes equal more serious epidemics, he added.

In addition to the flu virus, the students are also working with large 3D printed models of several other viruses, including Zika, Ebola, polio, and the common cold.

“It’s a very powerful learning technique — we can go into a lecture theatre and rather than looking at a picture, we can throw virus models into the crowd and say ‘here, catch a cold!'” Dr. Strappe said.

Some of the models also illustrate how antibodies generated by the immune system bind to the viruses as they work to remove the threat.

The virus models were created from 3D scans of viruses uploaded by various research organizations. Each model took about 24 hours to print, and they’re all accurate to 0.2mm, according to CQUniversity Laboratory Supervisor Simon Cumming. The hope is that by studying viruses in large 3D form, understanding can be gained not only on how the viruses survive and evolve, but how they can better be treated and even, ultimately, cured.

In addition, the interdisciplinary nature of the project is exposing medical students to skills they wouldn’t necessarily learn otherwise in their degrees, said Dr. Strappe.

“This project exposes medical science students to engineering concepts such as computer-aided design and advanced manufacturing, which they normally wouldn’t encounter in their degree,” he said. “This helps students to think beyond the confines of their own subject and develop interdisciplinary skills which students will need in the field.”

Since 3D printing is becoming such a large part of the medical field, it really should be part of medical school curriculum, but until it is, projects like this one are a great way to expose future medical professionals to the technology – and maybe to get them to eventually come up with cures to some of our worst and most persistent diseases.

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[Sources: CQUniversity / ABC / Images: CQUniversity]

 

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