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From printing paper to printing organs

New technology brings new creations, big and small

Twenty-month-old Kaiba Gionfriddo was born with tracheobronchomalacia, a rare disease which led to the weakening and deterioration of the his windpipe. Only one in 2,200 children have this disease. Gionfriddo’s tracheostomy and ventilator proved ineffective, and his health began to decline. Doctors at the University of Michigan gave Gionfriddo hope: they wanted to use a printer. This is not just any printer, but rather a 3D printer that could innovate new ways to save the lives of people like Gionfriddo.

Using 3D printers, doctors created a specialized biopolymer splint that was on Gionfriddo’s windpipe, effectively allowing the bronchi to expand along with his skeleton. Eventually, the splint as reabsorbed in Gionfriddo’s body. A 3D printer successfully saved this little boy’s life.

As seen with Gionfriddo, 3D printers take materials—most commonly metal or plastic—and print the product layer by layer.

A major part of the process is the 3D Computer Aided Design of the product, which tells the printer what the product should look like. With the computerized model, the creator can make the product as many layers as needed. Each added layer contributes to a higher resolution and better overall quality.

While the medical world explores new ideas with 3D printers, students at Minnehaha have begun their own discovery of these new tools. Students have started to research the printers in classes such as Anatomy, but Minnehaha has also integrated the use of 3D printers into daily activity in this year’s International Space Station (ISS) program.

“Because the students are having to use the microlab (which is a very small space), they need custom built parts,” 3D printer manager senior Min Park said. “They’re not going to be able to find a cube-shaped box that fits perfectly inside the microlab that’s affordable. We can use the 3D printer to print different models, until we can find out what design we want to go with.”

“The ultimate goal,” he countinued, “outlined by Mr. Myers and Mr. Terfa is being able to 3D print all the parts we need and making a documentation so that anyone in Minnehaha, or at least the next 3D printing team, can read our documentation and start printing day one.”

Last year’s ISS class utilized 3D printing for the same reason—to create the small pieces needed for their project.

However, last year the team hired a 3D printing company to print their parts.

This year, the ISS class has taken the 3D printing into their own hands. A recent donation of $5,000 from the Class of 1965 led to the purchase of a professional, highly equipped printer model.

Later, the team purchased six smaller tabletop printers, bringing the total number of available printers at Minnehaha to seven.

“Mr. Myers is thinking of integrating 3D printers into upper math courses such as Calculus I and II for 3D graphing, because it’s sometimes hard to visualize what a 3D graph would look like,” Park continued.  “If you could have a 3D model that you could show to students, then 3D graphing might become more intuitive. It’s easy to imagine a straight line, but maybe not a parabolic plane.”

While this ISS class has been focusing on the engineering and modeling capacities of the printers, anatomy students have been studying a the medical side of things: the potential printing of human organs.

“Organ donations are in high demand, but not a lot of people are donors,” Anatomy and Physiology teacher Nancy Cripe said. “The alternative is to 3D print a kidney with your own cells so genetically it’s a match and your body won’t reject it.

The idea, which is being pioneered, is to have a matrix that is noncellular, because spray out a bunch of cells can’t just be sprayed out.

Some of the research suggests that a kidney could be taken and its cellular contents dissolved to leave a matrix, or “skeleton.”

With that template, cells could be applied, which would then divide and grow.

The concept then is that you would have a perfectly functioning kidney grown from your own cells around a noncellular matrix, which doesn’t necessarily have to come from a donated organ.

We’re just a few years away from this technique being perfected so that it can actually provide those organs for transplants that are needed.”

Cripe has been both investigating on her own and inspiring her anatomy students with thoughtful prompts in order to get students interested in cultivating their own ideas about these revolutionary printers.

“An assignment we had in anatomy was to write a paragraph about what you would do if you could 3D print anything,” senior Faith Hlavac said.

“We had recently learned about how 3D printing was being used to replicate prosthetic arms and hands cheaply and easily, and also how there was research being done about the potential for 3D printing organs,” she continued. “My response to the prompt was that I would print a pancreas for our family friend, Perry, whose pancreatic cancer has spread to many other areas of his body, and who may not have much time left.

“If this technology were available,” said Cripe, “it would save many lives including those of loving fathers, husbands, and friends like my family friend, Perry.”

The message Minnehaha intends to show students is that new technology brings with it the potential for creation and innovation.

While the process may be difficult, there are countless new usages for this versatile printer.

“The potential [of 3D printers] hasn’t been overrated, but the difficulty has been underestimated,” Park said.

“It’s extremely difficult to use, and every printer is different, every filament of spool is different, every plastic is different and every room is different,” he continued. “Media has portrayed it to be this magical thing that you can just click print on and it’ll work.”

“It actually is a whole new field with a lot of different fields involved,” Park said, “such as basic computer science, graphic design, and understanding of architecture.”

Students from a varied group of fields will be able to share their knowledge on this topic, whether in medicine, engineering, math, or graphic design.

“I can’t even imagine the cool things we’ll be doing with 3D printers four years from now,” ISS teacher Sam Terfa said. “I think we’ll be very surprised to think back and think, ‘We used to not have a 3D printer? How did we get by without x, y, and z? They’re so essential to what we do now!’”

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About Meena Morar

[email protected] Meena is the online editor and junior staff writer whose interests are in english and history studies. Meena enjoys to delve into intelligent conversations with a deeper understanding as the goal. She is also the captain of the Debate team.

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