University of Sheffield engineers helped to develop 3D printed implants which could pave the way to the next generation of medical treatments for patients with nervous system problems. 

In a new study, researchers from the University of Sheffield, St Petersburg State University and Technische Universität Dresden showed that their implant prototypes successfully stimulated the spinal cord in animal models including cats, rats and zebrafish. 

They also stimulated and recorded electrical signals from other surfaces such as the brain, peripheral nerve, as well as some muscles.

The study was led by Ivan Minev, Professor of Intelligent Healthcare Technologies at the University of Sheffield, and Professor Pavel Musienko from St Petersburg State University. 

To print the implants, the team developed ‘NeuroPrint’ which is a hybrid printing technology for personalized soft neuromuscular interfaces. While the development started in Germany, it has since then been transferred to Sheffield. 

The study, which took approximately three years to complete, started with a simple question: “Can we print neuroimplants?”

Professor Minev explained that the biggest challenge for the team was figuring out a way to print electronic materials that can survive stretch, which is not a typical feature of metallic conductors.

He said: “If you think of a metallic wire, when you stretch it a little bit it would break. We found that with printing, it was easier to have composite materials”.

“This means we mix a conductive particle, platinum, with a polymer material to get a conductive paste. Once we had a working way of doing this, it was a lot of back and forth in selecting a few designs that we wanted to go further with”.

“That was also the most fun part because we had discussions of what was possible to do technologically and what the biologists wanted to have.”

In the study paper, the researchers write that despite improvements in materials, current technologies do not support the rapid customization of implants. This makes adapting such implants to the anatomy of individual patients impractical, slow and costly. 

As well as this, producing these implants is currently expensive and takes time because they are produced in small, specific batches and do not come from a production line.

Nevertheless, it is hoped that as the technology matures, 3D printing could be utilised to create medical devices that are tailored to each patient’s needs as part of personalised treatment plans for neurological diseases.

Professor Minev said: “We are expecting that hopefully within five years or so we will be able to have some clinical trials. This is dependent on further tests and validation that needs to be done on the technology to ensure its safety and reliability.”

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