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In Tufts Medical 3D Printing Course, Students Navigate Bioprinting and More

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There is a huge demand for trained experts in additive manufacturing (AM), especially as more cutting-edge 3D printing technologies begin to transition into mainstream production brands. As a result, any career-connected experiences that build students’ knowledge of the skills required to thrive in the field are becoming very popular, with top universities worldwide offering AM courses and programs, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Additive Manufacturing for Innovative Design and Production class, or Penn State University’s Master of Engineering in Additive Manufacturing and Design. In 2021, Tufts University’s biomedical engineering department joined the ranks with its new 3D Printing the Human Body course. And as the name suggests, students learn about 3D printing and bioprinting technologies currently used to create customized medical applications.

Chartered by Vincent Fitzpatrick, a postdoctoral biomedical researcher at Tufts, the class was initially designed for 15 to 20 students but ended up with over 30. According to The Tufts Daily journalist Avery Hanna, who first reported the news of the course, Fitzpatrick decided to teach 3D printing after noticing the lack of classes available for students interested in the field.

A working 3D printer, 3D-printed tweezers and several skeletal models are pictured.

A working 3D printer, 3D-printed tweezers and several skeletal models are pictured. Image courtesy of Michelle Ma/Will Flamm / The Tufts Daily.

Hoping to cover as wide a range as possible of new technologies and applications of 3D printing in the medical field, Fitzpatrick gives students the chance to use a variety of bioprinters and 3D printers on-site to create medical applications. For example, students can experiment with a Bio X platform from Cellink (now a subsidiary company of the BICO group).

In fact, the French biomedical engineer has been using 3D printing technologies in his research for years; throughout his 18 published papers, there is a clear tendency to leverage bioprinting and 3D printing. The expert is also part of Tufts’ Kaplan Lab, which focuses on biomaterials derived from biopolymer engineering and on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

Bioprinting undergraduate researcher at the Kaplan lab, Riley Patten, is also a teaching assistant for the class and said the value of the course comes primarily from the 3D printing experience.

“3D printing is a lot of sitting down next to each other and trying to figure out why things didn’t work. It’s tough with a lot of people. We didn’t have that experience going in, but we’re figuring it out, and each week, we have a set plan of what we want to do. Usually [it] never works, but we’re figuring it out.” Patten explained to The Tufts Daily. “I remember it was always very scary to look at a 3D printer or a bioprinter and be like, ‘Well I have no idea how that works; I’ll do something else. I think the goal is getting people comfortable looking at them and using them.”

If anyone should know about getting comfortable around 3D printing is Patten. A senior student, Patten has been heavily involved with the Kaplan lab since 2019, designing and building two 3D bioprinters, a high-resolution digital light processing (DLP) 3D printer capable of creating various photosensitive silk-fibroin-based biomaterials with live mammalian cells, and a dual-extruder syringe pump bioprinter. Additionally, he is working as an intern at Adam Feinberg’s regenerative medicine startup Fluidform, where he uses the brand’s proprietary FRESH (short for Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels) technology to generate various collagen asset prints.

As part of Boston’s prestigious education community, Tufts University has opened many opportunities for Fitzpatrick in the field of 3D printing and bioprinting. The expert pointed out that he has built a network of Boston area 3D printing experts who have lectured at Tufts’ 3D Printing the Human Body course. So far, the class has heard from seven guest lecturers, including CEOs, researchers, and other professionals in the field.

Indeed, the Massachusetts 3D printing community has expanded significantly in recent years, leading the charge with a wide range of startups, classes, and programs. For example, the city of Burlington is home to several prominent 3D printing businesses, like Desktop Metal, LightForce Orthodontics, and VulcanForms. At the same time, companies like Fluidform are leading the bioprinting market in Boston. Moreover, the proximity of these businesses to the Northeast’s most prestigious technical educational institutions and 3D printing programs and facilities make recruiting and hiring talented workforce easy and affordable.

Fitzpatrick said he is glad to have a class where he can share so many exciting possibilities with students: “It’s been a nice class with great students. It’s been a pleasure. I hope they’re enjoying it. It’s been nice sharing this. I keep being surprised how few classes at Tufts — but it’s the same at all the universities — are actually teaching students bioprinting and 3D printing in general. Because, from where I stand from a research perspective, there’s a lot of activity going that way.”

Undergraduate biomedical engineering student Deepti Srinivasan described in her university project website that “ever since Vincent (Fitzpatrick)’s lecture for our class, I have been really fascinated by the applications of 3D printing.” Currently a pre-med student, Srinivasan said she was very interested in how 3D printing can build customized preoperative anatomical models for surgical patients.

Other course takers have also praised the class as an excellent way 3D printing can revolutionize modern medicine. Like senior Michelle Ma, majoring in mechanical and biomedical engineering, found that learning about the intricacies of applying 3D printing has been one of the most valuable aspects of the class.

Ma and other students emphasized the importance of offering opportunities to learn 3D printing. Still, the class’s future is uncertain, explains Hanna, since Fitzpatrick plans to return to France in a year. Patten hopes someone will step up to continue the course in future years and believes Tufts needs more 3D printing-based classes. But, for now, students are very excited about the new workload, and 3D printing is opening up new opportunities in medicine, healthcare, and beyond for the next-generation workforce.

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