Over the decades, research in the medical sector has achieved some wondrous results by utilizing a whole host of novel technologies. One of these technologies is 3D printing, and it is now being used in the fight against diabetes - a disease that causes irregularities in a sufferer’s blood sugar levels.
We’re not quite at the point where scientists are able to 3D print entire pancreases for transplantation, but additive manufacturing is being used in some other clever ways. These include the 3D printing of glucose sensors for blood sugar regulation and even the 3D printing of bionic pancreas models for drug testing and discovery.
The rise of 3D printed glucose sensors
For people that live with diabetes, constant finger pricking and costly glucose monitoring systems are commonplace. These techniques are used to monitor blood sugar levels on an ongoing basis to ensure the parameter stays in a safe range.
Finding a workaround for this, researchers from Washington State University have previously employed 3D printing to produce wearable glucose biosensors. The devices can be integrated into straps and gloves and essentially stick to a patient’s skin to monitor bodily fluids like sweat.
The sensors were 3D printed using a process called direct ink writing, which allowed the team to 3D print fine lines of functionalized inks. Here, the team used a nanoscale material that resulted in small and flexible electrodes capable of detecting glucose in sweat droplets.
Seeing as the 3D printing process is so precise, the material is printed in uniform layers which increases the sensitivity of the sensors. Unlike a needle prick, the devices are non-invasive and were even found to out-perform traditional sensors at detecting glucose. Due to the lack of 3D printing’s geometric limitations, the sensors can be custom printed on a patient-by-patient basis, catering to various needs.
A similar project from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens saw researchers recently 3D printing a ring with identical functionality. Manufactured using FFF 3D printing technology, the ring integrates with standard smartphone software to monitor blood sugar levels from sweat. Compared to traditional manufacturing processes, the 3D printing of biosensors has the effect of reducing waste, all while cutting manufacturing costs and improving the accuracy of the glucose monitors.
3D printing of the pancreas
The other major way in which 3D printing is being used to fight diabetes is with 3D printed pancreas models. Just this year, a number of academic partners across Europe, including the University of Naples and ETH Zurich, came together for what is called the ENLIGHT project. The novel project aims to 3D bio print a living model of the human pancreas.
While this may sound off-the-wall, the intent here is to improve the testing protocols for diabetes medication. The bioprinter to be used in the four-year study is currently being developed by a company called Readily3D, a specialist in volumetric 3D printing technology for medical applications. Using the bioprinter, the project partners will fabricate pancreatic tissue structures at high speeds before adding signalling molecules to the 3D-printed pancreas models. These molecules will enable the models to simulate how a real pancreas might act when exposed to a certain stimulus or chemical.
What makes this so important? With access to fully-functional 3D printed pancreas models, researchers will no longer need to resort to animal testing the test the efficacy and safety of new experimental drugs. The development of the models will also mean laboratory tests can be performed to determine which candidate medication is the best one for a specific patient, sparing diabetes sufferers a long search with unpleasant side effects. As a bonus, it will also save on treatment costs and may speed up drug discovery with fewer ethical dilemmas in the way of testing.
The future of 3D printing in the fight against diabetes
After asthma, diabetes is the most common chronic disease found in children worldwide. The condition affects an estimated 34 million Americans. Despite this, diabetes treatments haven’t really progressed all that much when compared to other areas in the field of medicine. This is why it’s imperative that novel technologies like 3D printing are being used to great effect.
With multi-million dollar projects like ENLIGHT being funded by innovation grants, there is much hope for novel drug testing, and researchers worldwide are putting their 3D printing skills to use with glucose biosensors.
The next step is what most would consider the holy grail of 3D bioprinting - a transplantable pancreas. While