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A robotic arm that can 3D bioprint inside the human body

The future of medical technology has landed, and it’s nothing short of revolutionary. Imagine a surgical robotic arm that could print complex structures directly inside the human body. This might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but it’s not anymore. The latest advancement in 3D bioprinting technology has given rise to this cutting-edge innovation that promises to revolutionize healthcare as we know it. Researchers from the University Of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney, have developed a miniature robotic arm for 3D printing biomaterial directly on human organs.

What is the surgical robotic arm?

The proof-of-concept device is F3DB and can go inside the body like an endoscope. It’s capable of directly delivering multilayered biomaterials onto the surface of internal organs and tissues. A maneuverable swivel head that prints the bioink is attached to the end of a long, flexible, snake-like robotic arm. The device can all be controlled externally. It includes a three-axis printing head directly mounted onto the tip of a soft robotic arm. The head features soft artificial muscles for movement in three directions.

The device works similarly to conventional desktop 3D printers. It can be fabricated at any length. Elaborating on the same, the researchers said that they could program the nozzle to print pre-determined shapes. It can also operate manually for more complex or undetermined bioprinting when required. To demonstrate feasibility, the team of researchers at UNSW tested the cell viability of living biomaterial after the system printed it.

F3DB is an all-in-one endoscopic surgical platform for a variety of functions which include surgery for removing certain cancers, such as colorectal cancer. The printing head operates as a type of electric scalpel to mark and cut away cancerous lesions. Blood and excess tissue can also be cleaned from the site simultaneously through the water nozzle. Immediate 3D printing of biomaterial, promotes faster healing too.

“Compared to the existing endoscopic surgical tools, the developed F3DB was designed as an all-in-one endoscopic tool that avoids the use of changeable tools, which are normally associated with longer procedural time and infection risks,” Mai Thanh Thai said.

The team plans in vivo testing on living animals for its next steps. They have received a provisional patent for the technology. These could include an integrated camera and a real-time scanning system. The real-time scanning would reconstruct the 3D tomography of the moving tissue inside the body.

Limitations 

“Existing 3D bioprinting techniques require biomaterials to be made outside the body and implanting that into a person would usually require large open-field open surgery, which increases infection risks,” said Do. “Our flexible 3D bioprinter means biomaterials can be directly delivered into the target tissue or organs with a minimally invasive approach.”

The smallest F3DB prototype they produced has a diameter similar to commercial therapeutic endoscopes, approximately 11-13 mm. The device is small enough for insertion into a human gastrointestinal tract. The researchers say they could scale it even smaller for future uses.

“Currently, there are no commercially available devices that can perform in situ 3D bioprinting on internal tissues/organs distanced from the skin surface,” Lovell said. “Some other proof-of-concept devices have been presented, but they are much more rigid and tricky to use in complex and confined spaces inside the body.”

The researchers feel that within 5-7 years, this technology could be used to access hard-to-reach areas inside the body through small skin incisions. The engineers performed early testing inside an artificial colon. They also 3D printed various materials with different shapes on the surface of a pig’s kidney.

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