How Leading Scientists Across Fields are Embracing 3D Printing
Nature, the international weekly journal of science, published a feature on how 3D printing is opening up new worlds to research. In a detailed article, Nature covers uses of 3D printing by leading scientists ranging from investigating complex molecules, designing custom lab tools, printing and sharing rare artifacts, and manufacturing cardiac tissue that beats like a heart.
We recommend you read the full feature. Below are some of the highlights:
At palaeontology and anthropology conferences, more and more people are carrying printouts of their favourite fossils or bones. “Anyone who thinks of themselves as an anthropologist needs the right computer graphics and a 3D printer. Otherwise it’s like being a geneticist without a sequencer,” says Zollikofer.
Read more coverage on paleontology.
These days, 3D printing is being used to mock up far more complex systems, says Arthur Olson, who founded the molecular graphics lab at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, 30 years ago. These include molecular environments made up of thousands of interacting proteins, which would be onerous-to-impossible to make any other way. With 3D printers, Olson says, “anybody can make a custom model”. But not everybody does: many researchers lack easy access to a printer, aren’t aware of the option or can’t afford the printouts (which can cost $100 or more).
For example, Organovo, a company based in San Diego, California, has developed a printer to build 3D tissue structures that could be used to test pharmaceuticals. The most advanced model it has created so far is for fibrosis: an excess of hard fibrous tissue and scarring that arises from interactions between an organ’s internal cells and its outer layer. The company’s next step will be to test drugs on this system. “It might be the case that 3D printing isn’t the only way to do this, but it’s a good way,” says Keith Murphy, a chemical engineer and chief executive of Organovo.
Read more coverage on organ printing.
Custom lab tools
In the meantime, basic plastic 3D printers are starting to allow researchers to knock out customized tools. Leroy Cronin, a chemist at the University of Glasgow, UK, grabbed headlines this year with his invention of ‘reactionware’ — printed plastic vessels for small-scale chemistry (M. D. Symes et al. Nature Chem. 4,349–354; 2012). Cronin replaced the ‘inks’ in a $2,000 commercially available printer with silicone-based shower sealant, a catalyst and reactants, so that entire reaction set-ups could be printed out. The point, he says, is to make customizable chemistry widely accessible. His paper showed how reactionware might be harnessed to produce new chemicals or to make tiny amounts of specific pharmaceuticals on demand. For now, other chemists see the idea as a clever gimmick, and are waiting to see what applications will follow.
Read more coverage on custom lab equipment.