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3D Printed Zebrafish Display Generates Cancer Research Awareness


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Dana-Farber’s Zebrafish Display at the cancer institute’s lobby in Boston is a one-of-a-kind interactive fundraising exhibit with 477 3D printed fish against a lit backdrop that looks like the ocean tide and symbolizes the importance of this particular fish for the future of cancer research and treatment. Installed by Massachusetts-based interactive studio Small Design Firm in collaboration with 3D printing marketplace Shapeways in 2012, the display pays homage to a tropical, freshwater tiny three-centimeter fish that shares 70% of the same genes as a human. For the display’s tenth anniversary, the original team worked on a modern update, which included refreshing the 3D prints and integrating new touch-free technology.

The dynamic Zebrafish Display is unique to honor or remember someone special, like patients, caregivers, and loved ones. Moreover, funds going to each zebrafish help Dana-Farber develop the next wave of cancer breakthroughs. The display is very emotional for visitors since each 3D printed fish is a unique algorithmically-generated shape engraved with a short personal tribute from a donor who made a gift to support Dana-Farber’s mission. Before the redesign, visitors could touch the fish to activate them, which would trigger a paired message displayed on one of three nearby screens.

Completed in December 2021, the newly refurbished installation is mounted on an undulating wall with steel rods acting as the fixing points for the 3D printed fish, with wiring running through the fish and connecting to individual circuit boards for each one. Small Design Firm, along with its original partners Shapeways and Sitara Systems, a New York designer of interactive experiences, has helped redesign the installation. Each 477 3D printed fish now bears a Near Field Communication (NFC) tag, a form of contactless communication between devices like smartphones or tablets, the same technology used in e-wallets and smart tags for medical applications. Thanks to the new technology, once a 3D printed zebrafish is “activated,” and the touch-free system lights up the fish, the wall’s patterns begin to transform, reflecting the messages wirelessly on visitors’ smartphones.

Aside from being imbued with the power to interact via mobile devices, each 3D print has been updated in materials, finishing, and coating. The team 3D printed numerous prototypes, testing different materials and finishes but ultimately settled on Nylon 12 and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), just like they did in 2012. Except for this time, they went with a premium finish. Once the 3D printed fish reached the team’s studio in Las Vegas, three layers of a UV-blocking clear-coated finish were applied to help the fish retain their bright white color and repel dust over time to avoid constant cleaning and touching of the pieces that could lead to degradation.

Led by Nathan Lachenmyer, co-founder and director of technology at Sitara Systems, the team again chose 3D printing for the installation reboot. An MIT graduate, Lachenmyer says he was surrounded by the technology while at MIT, where he received his undergraduate and master’s degrees.

“We’ve been aware of 3D printing pretty much since the beginning. Even in 2012 when we were first creating this installation and thinking about making a project with 500 unique parts, 3D printing allowed us to do something that was impossible with traditional manufacturing techniques,” continued the electrical engineer and computer science expert, who has specialized in combining digital strategy, human-centered design, and human-computer interaction. “Shapeways was really great when we worked together before, which led us to reach out to them again. It’s been so helpful to talk with them about what we could do in every aspect of 3D printing and finishing, and it saved us a lot of time in experimentation.”

Lachenmyer was asked to come back to select the new technology, execute the vision for the project, and act behind the scenes to bring the installation to life. This time around, he headed up the technology end of the project with his wife, Sadiya Akasha, co-founder and director of product development at Sitara Systems.

Newly refurbished Dana-Farber Zebrafish Display showcases message on smartphone.

Dana-Farber Zebrafish Display showcases messages on smartphones. Image courtesy of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Although the mission of allowing donors a chance to translate their support for cancer research into personal messages remains. A decade later, there was an emphasis on cancer patients constantly at risk from germs, which led to the team figuring out a way to make the display touch-free. With the NFC tags for each of the 477 3D printed models, Dana-Farber now facilitates the wireless communication of donor messages. This change is in tune with the times, as the Covid-19 era has proven that public interfaces are unsanitary, with the surface transmission of viruses being a big risk.

“The idea was to eliminate the original touch sensors because obviously, Dana-Farber is a cancer institute, and a lot of their patients are immunocompromised,” said Lachenmyer. “They wanted to do something new with the installation wall that would not risk the health of their patients who are in the building all the time.”

The installation remains in the institute’s lobby, where the large school of zebrafish can greet everyone. This particular organism has earned enormous respect in the biomedical research community. To cancer researchers at Dana-Farber, zebrafish offer several advantages for studying the disease. From their translucent skin, which allows observing the growth of tumors, to the fact that they can develop most of the types of tumors that humans can––often through the same gene pathways. Used for decades, zebrafish continue to find a niche as models for cancer research. In fact, Dana-Farber’s Thomas Look, a pediatric oncologist who relies on zebrafish for his work, explained that he uses them most often for making transgenic models––that is, introducing genes into the fish to see how genes work together to promote cancer.

3D printed zebrafish displays word "hope" in Dana-Farber installation.

3D-printed zebrafish displays the word “hope” in the Dana-Farber installation. Image courtesy of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Having such a strong history with cancer research, the installation’s refresh will help visitors illuminate the pieces individually to read the messages left by donors and generate awareness on cancer research. With fish featuring a wide range of heartwarming lines, from single words like “Hope” to inspiring inscriptions such as “Always in our hearts, we will continue to fight for a cure” (a dedicated message by cancer patient Nicole’s family), the touching but brilliant 3D printed installation continues to advocate for innovative research and compassionate care at Dana-Farber, one of the very best cancer hospitals in the world.

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