3D-printed diagnostic tool provides cheap, early detection of diseases

3D-printed microfluidic devices that promise to revolutionise medical diagnostics by detecting disease biomarkers, cells and other small structures in patient samples such as blood have been developed by researchers at Brigham Young University.

The team says it is the first to 3D print a viable microfluidic device small enough to be effective at a scale lower than 100 micrometres.

To create the device, researchers Greg Nordin and Adam Woolley constructed their own 3D printer to print at a much higher resolution and used a new, specifically designed, low-cost, custom resin.

“Others have 3D-printed fluidic channels, but they haven’t been able to make them small enough for microfluidics,” Nordin said. “So we decided to make our own 3D printer and research a resin that could do it.”

Their work has produced labs on a chip with flow channel cross-sections as small as 18 micrometres by 20 micrometres.

Previous efforts to 3D print microfluidic devices have failed to achieve success smaller than 100 micrometres. The researchers’ 3D printer uses a 385 nm LED, which dramatically increases the available selection of UV absorbers for resin formulation compared to 3D printers with 405 nm LEDs.

Nordin said the advantages of 3D printing for microfluidic device fabrication are already well-known and that their method, digital light processing stereolithography (DLP-SLA), is an especially promising lower-cost approach.

DLP-SLA uses a micromirror array chip, like those in most consumer projectors, to dynamically create the optical pattern for each layer during layer-by-layer printing of a device. The process has similarities to the creation of microprocessors.

Researchers say they are laying the foundation for 3D printing to challenge the dominance of conventional methods—soft lithography and hot embossing—of microfluidic prototyping and development.

“We’re deliberately trying to start a revolution in how microfluidic devices are fabricated,” Nordin said.

At the moment the biomarkers detected by the chip are being used to predict the incidence of pre-term births.

“It’s not just a little step, it’s a huge leap from one size regime to a previously inaccessible size regime for 3D printing,” Woolley said. “It opens up a lot of doors for making microfluidics more easily and inexpensively.”

IBM demonstrated similar ‘lab-on-a-chip’ technology last year although the devices were not 3D printed. 

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