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Remember when Jell-o® advertised its product as the food that’s “fun to eat”? Jell-o® or, more generically, gelatin, is taking a serious role in the field of medical diagnostics — in 3D printed form. 3D printed electronic gelatin may eventually be used to get inside of a patient’s body and detect biochemical imbalances. Not unlike diagnostic tests that require patients to drink small amounts of dye or swallow capsules that aid in visualizing problems inside of the body when x-rays and other scans are performed, this 3D printed gelatin is edible. Instead of more invasive methods for introducing a visualizing agent, it can simply be consumed.

edible-3d-printed-electronic-jello-670

3D printed electronic gelatin is the brainchild of Australian chemist and Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wollongong, Dr. Marc in het Panhuis. In het Panhuis and his team of researchers are working to develop edible hydrogels (a hydrogel is a colloidal gel in which water is the continuous phase). Anticipating the ever-expanding capacity of 3D printers to work with all kinds of materials, in het Panhuis’ team is trying to figure out how to make a hydrogel that is less fragile than the ones that are commonly used in the medical arena.

marc in het panhuis

Dr. Marc in het Panhuis

The researchers discovered that when they combined two different polymers, a much sturdier cross-linked molecular chain was formed. For example, they mixed genipin (“an anti-inflammatory agent derived from the fruit of the gardenia plant”) with gelatin. Additionally, they experimented with gellan gum, which is the thickener commonly found in puddings, sauces, jellies, and other, well, wiggly foods. To create the cross-linking, the team used common salt; by soaking gellum gum in table salt for a week, they produced a gel that was tougher and more stable.

Since hydrogels are made up primarily of water — as much as 97.5% — they are excellent conductors, particularly with the addition of sodium ions. In het Panhuis explained that when these conductive hydrogels are 3D printed, they will be heated and converted to a liquid state. As they cool over the course of a couple of hours, they set, much like the Jell-o® you and your mom used to make. The goal of in het Panhuis’ team is to produce a hydrogel that will be an edible biomedical sensor. The hydrogel would be “tunable.” That is, its electronic properties could be adjusted.

hydrogel-wound-care-filler

Typical hydrogel

That’s the easy part, relatively speaking. More challenging, explained in het Panhuis, is to devise a way to read the information the edible sensors collect. One requirement would, of course, be that the edible sensors must be bite-size. The University of Wollongong team has funding for seven years, so in het Panhuis is confident they can develop this material so it can serve as an efficient diagnostic tool and discover other uses for it. In that regard, the chemist hopes to use 3D printed hydrogel or related materials for soft robotics.

One exciting potential application, clearly well down the road, is with 4D printing: 3D printed material that changes its shape or form. Let us know what you think of the potential for these exciting new biomedical applications over in the 3D Printed Hydrogel forum thread at 3DPB.com.

[Via: Discovery.com]
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