3D printed prosthetics are pretty awesome. They can replace legs, hearing aids, and even pieces of skull. Unfortunately, the materials used in 3D printing aren’t always safe for the human body. Most plastics are safe to touch with your hands, but that doesn’t mean you want them in your bloodstream.
The reason for this stems from the electronics industry. Early 3D printing devices weren’t intended to make medical implants; they were used to make everyday objects or electronics. In those cases, the material doesn’t have to be 100% safe; no one expects you to ingest the contents of your cell phone any time soon. But if you’re working on a device meant to be placed in someone’s body, you need to be a little more careful.
The Solution: Vitamin B12
As a kid, you were probably told to eat your veggies so you could get the vitamins you need – but those veggies aren’t just for eating. Riboflavin, also known as vitamin B12, could potentially be used as a component in 3D printed devices.
Riboflavin would be used in a type of printing known as two-photon polymerization. This method creates microscopic structures out of light-sensitive materials. Many of the chemicals used in this process are slightly toxic to humans; for medical devices, even the smallest amount of toxicity is a bad thing. Luckily, riboflavin just happens to be naturally light sensitive – which is why it’s found in so many plants.
The process is still under research, but the basic premise is sound. Many medical implants get rejected after they’re placed in the body; your immune system recognizes them as a foreign object, and tries to remove them. Since our bodies naturally absorb vitamins, using riboflavin in the construction of implants could help decrease their rate of rejection, and increase the success rate of surgeries.
Researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina are working together to produce a usable material that includes riboflavin. Their current prototype is stable, but not as durable as it needs to be. According to NPR, it’s only been tested on harvested cow cells – it still need to be refined before it’s ready to test on humans.
Even though it’s a long way off, this material could have a lot of promise for the medical industry as a whole. Medical tools need to be as safe as possible; the cleaner the materials, the better they are for the patients.