New Brain Cancer Treatments Could be Possible with 3D Printed Microfluidics

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In a significant leap toward revolutionizing the treatment of brain diseases, the collaboration between Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) researcher Rafael Davalos and Phase, a frontrunner in 3D printing technology for organ-on-chip models, marks a fundamental advance in the field. Using a two-year $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this partnership is making advances to recreate a blood-brain barrier model with 3D printing. This innovation promises to pave the way for new therapies to treat neurological diseases and brain cancer by improving the process of drug testing and development.

Virginia Tech alumnus Jeff Schultz (left), co-founder of Phase and Rafael Davalos of biomedical engineering and mechanics (right). Image courtesy of Phase.

The challenge of creating effective treatments for neurological conditions and brain cancer lies in the complexity of the human brain and the protective blood-brain barrier that guards it. Traditional methods, relying heavily on animal testing, often fall short in predicting human responses, leading to expensive and time-consuming development cycles for new drugs. However, introducing microfluidic devices will change the game by mimicking human physiological environments more accurately in the lab.

Davalos, who holds the Margaret P. and John H. Weitnauer Jr. Chair in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, is leading a team of researchers to recreate a blood-brain-barrier model with 3D printing technology. He underlines the potential of this new fabrication method to provide insights into cellular communication within realistic environments. His team’s collaboration with Phase leverages 3D printing to enhance the capabilities of microfluidics, offering a promising direction for biotechnological advancements.

“I believe this new method to fabricate microfluidic devices will enable researchers to deepen their understanding of how cells communicate within physiologically relevant environments previously unachievable,” said Davalos.

Rafael Davalos. Image courtesy of Spencer Roberts of Virginia Tech.

Microfluidics, the science of manipulating fluids through tiny channels, is the foundation for developing organ-on-chip models. These devices simulate parts of the human body using living cells to test the effects and safety of drugs without human testing. Phase’s application of 3D printing to this field not only broadens the possibilities for microfluidics but also brings this innovative technology closer to market, potentially accelerating the delivery of new treatments to patients in need.

Founded in 2020, Phase’s proprietary platform enables PDMS (a silicon-based organic polymer widely used in microfluidics) and other biocompatible materials to be 3D printed at a commercial scale and a previously unattainable resolution. Virginia Tech alumnus Jeff Schultz, who earned his Ph.D. in materials engineering in 2003, is CEO and co-founder of the company. Phase’s roots trace back to its operation out of the First Turn Innovations business incubator in Cornelius, North Carolina, where Schultz has previously emphasized the transformative potential of their work in 3D printing of medical devices.

Schultz’s company is part of an interdisciplinary research group that includes an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Seemantini Nadkarni, who will develop a system to test the kinetics of PDMS curing during the creation of the organ-on-a-chip devices, and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, Amrinder Nain, who will fabricate nanoporous membranes mimics for the model. Together, this team seeks to tackle a very complex medical challenge.

Davalos conducts research in microfluidics and the development of technology for cancer treatment. Image courtesy of Spencer Roberts of Virginia Tech.

Fortunately, this endeavor is not isolated. Across the globe, various research institutions, universities, and companies are developing similar technologies to tackle neurological disorders and brain diseases. For example, the Wyss Institute at Harvard University is known for its innovative approaches to biological engineering, including 3D printing in brain-on-chip systems for studying brain diseases and testing neurotherapeutics in a controlled environment. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been developing microfluidic devices and 3D printed systems for studying the brain, including models to understand neurodegenerative diseases and the blood-brain barrier.

Similarly, Johns Hopkins University scientists have developed organ-on-a-chip platforms that could mimic the brain’s structure and function to better understand brain diseases and test potential treatments. University of California, Irvine (UCI) researchers are also contributing to the field with their work on developing microfluidic devices and organ-on-chip models, including efforts to model and study diseases affecting the brain. These groundbreaking therapies promise a brighter future for patients around the world.

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