Precision at the Microscale: UK Researchers Advance Medical Devices with BMF’s 3D Printing Tech

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University of Nottingham researchers are using Boston Micro Fabrication‘s (BMF) 3D printing technology to develop medical devices that improve compatibility with human tissue. Funded by a UK grant, this project specifically targets the design of implants that can integrate more effectively into the body, aiming to reduce complications such as infections and adverse immune reactions. The partnership leverages BMF’s capability to print with micro-precision, which is essential for creating the complex and often very small structures these new devices require.

Building on this innovative use of BMF’s technology, the research team at Nottingham is engaged in a project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), focused on “Designing Bio-instructive Materials for Translation-ready Medical Devices.” This initiative centers around developing topographically complex materials with detailed surface textures that interact more effectively with human tissue. Using BMF’s 3D printing technology, these materials are designed to improve how well they fit and function within the body and support essential functions needed for various implants.

In an interview with 3DPrint.com, BMF’s CEO, John Kawola, highlighted the potential of combining various polymers and topographies to optimize medical devices.

Kawola said, “These medical devices could be long-term implants or temporary aids like catheters. The aim is to facilitate healthy cell growth while preventing bacterial infections, a common issue with implants.”

The University of Nottingham’s Biodiscovery Institute. Image courtesy of BMF.

A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that one in every 31 hospital patients will contract a healthcare-associated infection (HAI). Highlighting the severity of this issue, the Stevens Institute of Technology recently noted that a substantial number of these infections are linked to tissue-contacting biomedical devices, including hip or knee replacements, catheters, and pacemakers. These biomaterials-associated infections, commonly called implant infections, are often caused by bacteria and viruses that spread within healthcare settings or are transferred from the hospital environment to the patient.

The researchers at Nottingham tackle this issue head-on by focusing on developing advanced biomaterials that resist these infections. Their work aims to create surfaces that naturally discourage bacterial growth while promoting healthy tissue integration. This project is crucial as it not only addresses the immediate challenges of reducing implant infections but also sets a foundation for safer, more reliable medical treatments in the future.

“The researchers want to optimize the interaction between different polymers and topographies to significantly enhance medical devices,” says Kawola. It’s not just about preventing infections; it’s also about promoting healthy cell interactions in the long term. These goals drive our collaboration with the University of Nottingham, enabling the development of innovative, life-improving medical technologies.”

The executive explained that the team uses BMF’s additive manufacturing technology to create chips in a ten-by-ten array of plastics and topographies, exposing them to various environmental conditions to see what happens. This allows them to test hundreds of combinations productively, which would be challenging with other technologies like laser etching or two-photon technology.

Coated Catheter by Camstent. Image courtesy of the University of Nottingham.

BMF’s technology is particularly suited for projects at Nottingham because it produces precise micro-structures for testing interactions between materials and human tissues. One such application within the Nottingham research is the production of ChemoTopoChips. These specialized chips are a cornerstone of the study, allowing scientists to systematically test and evaluate over a thousand combinations of polymer chemistries and surface topographies. Using ChemoTopoChips, researchers can efficiently screen potential materials to determine which combinations most effectively promote the desired biological responses and inhibit unwanted reactions, such as bacterial adhesion. This method speeds up the research process, helping to move promising materials into clinical use faster than traditional approaches.

Thanks to the precision of BMF’s 3D printing, exploring these combinations on a micro-scale is easier, which is crucial for understanding how cells interact with different surfaces. Researchers use machine learning to analyze the data collected from these experiments, creating models that predict how materials will perform. This helps guide the design of future medical devices.

On the advisory side, Kawola plays a crucial role, contributing his expertise as an advisory board member to drive advances in medical device compatibility and functionality.

“My role on the advisory board is to guide what’s feasible with the tools we have. I attended an advisory board meeting in Nottingham, where we discussed the project’s progress and challenges. It involves at least 25 people, including investigators and students, working on complex data that combines machine learning and AI to optimize outcomes. This collaborative effort is key to advancing medical technology,” says Kawola. “The ultimate goal is to develop a library of topographies and polymers, creating a reference for designing specific types of medical devices.”

BMF’s S140. Image courtesy of BMF.

This could fundamentally change how devices are designed and manufactured, particularly when transitioning these insights to medical device manufacturers who might use 3D printing for production. The implications of this research are vast, with potential applications across various healthcare domains, including regenerative medicine, where materials must interact beneficially with human tissues. For instance, in projects targeting the repair of the cornea or the retina, the ability to produce tailored materials that can promote healing and integration without causing adverse reactions is crucial. Kawola says the team is also looking into cochlear implants, catheters, and even intestinal patches designed to repair damaged intestines and prevent infections.

Collaborative efforts between BMF and Nottingham are not new. The University has a big additive manufacturing center and was among the early adopters of BMF’s technology. For this particular research team, BMF shipped one of its machines roughly a year ago, and it was installed in a biocabinet to ensure optimal sterile conditions, safeguarding the biological materials used in their experiments. This longstanding partnership not only improves the development of new medical technologies but also ensures that these innovations are aligned with industry standards and can be rapidly transitioned into clinical settings.

Moreover, the research efforts are not limited to creating individual medical devices but extend to developing comprehensive libraries of material and topography data that can be utilized by medical device manufacturers worldwide. This resource aims to standardize the approach to designing medical devices that are both effective and safe for patient use. Looking ahead, Nottingham researchers plan to expand their research scope to include more complex device designs that can be personalized for individual patients’ needs. The ultimate goal is to achieve precision in medical treatment that allows for highly effective and minimally invasive interventions.

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