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This Is How You Inexpensively 3-D Print a Trachea Segment

Find out how New York researchers avoided spending hundreds of thousands of extra dollars on equipment.

Daniel Grande
Daniel A. Grande, PhD

Chris Newmarker

They 3-D printed windpipe or trachea segments that held up for four weeks in an incubator. And they did it using a MakerBot Replicator 2X experimental 3-D printer that retails for $2499.

That was the achievement recently announced out of the North Shore-LIJ Health System in New York and its Feinstein Institute for Medical Research--as well as the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine at Hofstra University.

Daniel A. Grande, PhD, director of the Orthopedic Research Laboratory at the Feinstein Institute, and Goldstein, a PhD candidate at the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine, say this is he first time a regular MakerBot PLA filament was used to custom build tracheal scaffolding, which was then combined with living cells to create a tracheal segment.

A special bioprinter would have cost $180,000, an amount that the institute would not allocate.

"Do you remember the Six Million Dollar Man?" Grande said in a news release. "The Bionic Man is not the future, it's the present. We have that ability to do that now. It's really exciting."

See Grande discuss the research at MD&M East, June 9-11 in New York City. And check out Stratasys printers on exhibition.

"MakerBot [part of Stratasys] was extremely helpful and consulted on optimizing our design files so they would print better and provided advice on how to modify the MakerBot Replicator 2X Experimental 3-D printer to print with PLA and the biomaterial," Goldstein said.

"We actually found designs to modify the printer on MakerBot's Thingiverse website to print PLA with one extruder and the biomaterial with the other extruder.  We 3-D printed the needed parts with our other MakerBot Replicator desktop 3-D printer, and used them to modify the MakerBot Replicator 2X Experimental 3-D printer so that we could better iterate and test our ideas."

Goldstein initially thought that he would need special PLA to maintain sterility and have the ability to dissolve in the body. But Goldstein then discovered that the heat from the extruder head actually sterilized the PLA as it printed, enabling the use of ordinary MakerBot PLA Filament.

The bio-ink, which stays at room temperature, is extruded during the 3-D printing process and fills in gaps in the PLA scaffolding. The ink--which includes a mixture of cells called chondrocytes, nutrients to feed them, and collagen, which holds it all together--then cures into a gel on the heated build plate of the MakerBot Replicator 2X.  The New York researcher found it was possible possible to print a 2-inch-long section of windpipe, shaped like a hollowed-out Tootsie Roll, within two hours.

Goldstein also 3-D printed customized incubator gears and other parts to create a brand new bioreactor, which normally costs $50,000 to $150,000.

Besides Grande and Goldstein, the research team includes surgeons from the North Shore-LIJ Health System. So far, the printed trachea parts are proof-of-concept, with FDA approval potentially years away. But there is hope to get a compassionate therapy exception to get the therapy into patients, especially because traditional means of reconstructing a damaged trachea have limitations.

Once the bio-ink adheres to the scaffolding, it goes into a bioreactor, an appliance like a rotisserie oven that keeps the cells warm and growing evenly. A new bioreactor costs between $50,000 and $150,000, so Mr. Goldstein customized an incubator for his needs, making gears and other parts on their MakerBot Replicator desktop 3-D printer to produce a brand new bioreactor.

"3-D printing and tissue engineering has the potential to replace lots of different parts of the human body. The potential for creating replacement parts is almost limitless," says Lee Smith, MD, chief of pediatric otolaryngology at Cohen Children's Medical Center.

MakerBot is in the process of providing the Feinstein Institute with early samples of its just-announced MakerBot PLA Composite Filaments in limestone (calcium carbonate) and iron. Feinstein Institute plan to start investigating how to engineer other kinds of tissue, such as bone, and 3-D print custom-made shields for cancer and radiation treatment.

Said Jenny Lawton, CEO of MakerBot: "We are continually amazed by what is being created with 3-D printers. To know that a MakerBot Replicator 3-D printer played a role in a potential medical breakthrough is inspiring."

See Grande discuss the research at MD&M East, June 9-11 in New York City. And check out Stratasys printers on exhibition.

Chris Newmarker is senior editor of Qmed and MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @newmarker.

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