AM – the next step towards tomorrow’s healthcare
3D printing is so much more than just printing physical objects for fun. In Uppsala, there is research and collaboration between Uppsala University and industry going on which could play a crucial role in tomorrow’s healthcare and increase the chances of saving lives.
Additive Manufacturing (AM) is already an important solution to many difficult challenges in healthcare. In short, AM is about three dimensional (3D) printing – the “printing” of physical objects for use in healthcare as well as entirely different areas.
“You could think about AM as being the industrial version of consumer 3D printing, where we engage in research with the end goal of being able to take prototypes into industrial-scale manufacturing,” explains Cecilia Persson, Director of the Additive Manufacturing for the Life Sciences competence centre in Uppsala.
Additive Manufacturing for the Life Sciences is a recently launched competence centre funded by Vinnova, Uppsala University, other academic partners, and a host of industry partners. A total of 22 actors are involved in the substantial mobilisation that the competence centre entails, including companies such as Cytiva, AFRY (formerly ÅF and Pöyry), OssDsign, Graphmatech and AddNorth. Region Uppsala is also a co-funder and contributor to the centre via Uppsala University Hospital.
“The centre’s focus is on additive manufacturing for the life sciences, and it brings together academia, industry and hospitals/public sector activities. The collaboration between these actors is important and means that we can accelerate the value generation for healthcare and businesses when we conduct research projects together. At the same time, we are training people who can then have roles in industry and healthcare in particular. So there is also a very clear skills development and skills provision aspect to this.”
The end goal is to develop 3D printed products, models and other aids that can facilitate healthcare. For example, it is possible to print titanium mesh to replace bone when parts of a patient’s bone have been removed during surgery. It is also possible to create models for surgeons to practise on prior to actual surgery – these models are exact copies of what the surgeons will encounter inside the body. Uppsala University is also home to inter-faculty collaborations such as U-PRINT, which is headed up by Johan Kreuger. U-PRINT is the Disciplinary Domain of Medicine and Pharmacy’s AM venture, which is also developing bioprinting for research applications and in the long term for treatment. Bioprinting is the practice of printing organs and tissue-like structures for use in regenerative medicine.
“The ultimate goal is to improve and save lives. However there are also significant cost and time savings to be had, perhaps especially in relation to healthcare thanks to models of this type that allow surgeons to practise exactly what they will do during surgery prior to the operation itself.”
In order to achieve this goal, the form of collaboration adopted within Additive Manufacturing for the Life Sciences is key, according to Cecilia Persson.
“Academia is of course home to cutting-edge research, as well as other expertise. However, this research is often focused on things far ahead of what can be used right now, and that’s where industry is important for describing the current situation and needs. That gives us a chance to work with our usual long-term focus, but also short-term with research that is relevant to industry and the healthcare sector right now. Then of course the hospitals also play an important role in describing the solutions that are needed based on the challenges they are facing in healthcare.
“Working with business and industry means there are also quite different opportunities to scale up a manufacturing processes and thus establish faster what will or won’t work. All in all, everyone stands to gain a great deal through collaboration and investing together,” says Cecilia.
Uppsala University is prominent in research in additive manufacturing. Cecilia Persson is also a member of the steering group for the project known as AM@Å – Uppsala University’s joint initiative in additive manufacturing, located at the Ångström Laboratory. The group ensures that all equipment required to conduct the research moving forward is available on site there, for both students at the University and representatives from industry. There are many exciting research projects currently in progress at Uppsala University that could become revolutionary.
“One example is that we are looking at how we could 3D-print with bioresorbable metals. At present, when something needs repairing in the body, the material used for the repair remains inside the body. Instead of leaving a screw in place after a broken bone is healed, this bioresorbable material would first help to heal the fracture and then dissolve by itself,” Cecilia explains.
During 2021, a new lab will be added which will also be available to students in the recently started Master’s programme. It might just be in this very lab that the next big healthcare breakthrough is developed.