3D Printing Comes to Medicine... and to Lilly COI!

Part of Lilly COI's purpose is to continually explore ways to improve the clinical trial experience through technology. So far, we've co-hosted a codeathon, and sponsored challenges to help encourage the development of creative and more patient-friendly clinical trial resources.

And, we know we've only scratched the surface of possibilities. We're excited to see wearable sensors, near field communication and 3D printing coming to the forefront of medicine, and are brainstorming and exploring what our next projects might be.

So that we'll be ready to explore any inspiration whenever it strikes, we've been building up our arsenal of technological tools and resources. This week, our Makerbot 3D printer arrived:

3D printers are devices that let users print three dimensional objects  layer by layer from a digital model using polymer tubes that the machine heats into a gooey plastic. (Check out this video for a full explanation of how it works.) These small-scale printers have been used by designers and hobbyists to print things like jewelry, smartphone accessories, clocks and much, much more. A father from Massachusetts was even able to use a 3D printer to make a prosthetic hand for his son.

What's the best thing about having a device that can print virtually anything? It can even print its own parts. One of the first things we did with our printer was to print a new part for it that would help to upgrade its capabilities and accuracy. Having a completely flat surface for 3D printing is very important, since the machine prints your object in layers from the bottom up. The machine's dial indictor helps you to check to make sure that the surface is completely level. The printer didn’t come with a dial indicator, so we ordered one separately and used the printer to create a holder for it.

Though our printer uses plastic to print physical objects, there are many different types of larger-scale printers that can print items using other materials, like paper or metal. Some biomedical companies are even using the technology with stem cells in order to "print" human  organs and tissues.

 3D Printing in Healthcare Landscape

Back in December of 2012, we published a blog post titled "3D Printing Comes to Medicine." At the time, even though the technology had been around for a few years, the concept was just beginning to hit the mainstream. Several companies were in the beginning stages of developing ideas for the use of 3D printing in healthcare.

One of the companies we mentioned was the San Diego-based Organovo. They had been working on the ability to use human cells in place of the 3D printer's ink, in order to produce tissue for early-stage drug testing. As of this week— just two short years later— the company has announced that it will be partnering with the National Institutes of Health to print eye tissue for use in studies. They are also working independently on "printing and commericializing liver tissue for toxicity testing, according to an article on Gigaom.com.


Along these same lines, scientists in Australia have created a tool called the BioPen. The pen uses 3D printing technology and "stem cell ink" that can allow doctors to draw new bones on patients. This can be useful in situations where someone has lost part of a bone, due to an accident or injury. A doctor could apply this tool directly to the missing area. According to Popular Science magazine, the device hasn't gone through clinical testing, so it may not be commercially available for a while yet.

Cyfuse Biomedical's printed arteries are another 3D printed bio-product that will soon enter clinical testing. Engineering.com says that researcher have a proof of concept in hand that shows how that they were able to take cells from a patient's skin and "use 0.1mm diameter nozzles to build layers of cells that combine to make blood vessels." They are currently evaluating procedures for testing the method on animals. They predict that human treatments using bio-printed blood vessels could begin by 2018.

Can 3D Printing Help Bring New Ideas to Clinical Research?

One of the biggest challenges in drug development right now is finding ways to speed up the clinical trial process in order to get new and better treatments to patients faster. 3D printing technology has the potential to create a wider culture of innovation in the clinical trial space, which we believe could speed up the process of finding solutions. Having access to our own 3D printer allows us to imagine a wider range of possibilities beyond the devices (e.g. smartphones, tablets, computers) that patients currently have available to them. With the 3D printer, we'll be able to prototype ideas using a fast-fail approach and advance in our ideation and design thinking.

Our hope is that through experimentation with our printer and other technologies, we'll be able to help study sponsors and researchers design more patient-friendly clinical study protocols, and help patients overcome potential barriers to participating in research.

So, what do you think? How can new technology and innovative-thinking help improve the clinical trial experience? Comment below, or send us a tweet.