The Challenge: Build a Faster Printer that Maintains Maximum Cell Viability
The challenge, however, would be to first develop a 3D printer capable of producing soft structures without causing extensive cell damage. Due to their inherent process and the types of input materials required, traditional extrusion-based printing technologies aren’t capable of creating the types of soft-cell structures Vincent’s research required. And, because of the laser curing technique used in SLA printers, producing a model of virtually any reasonable size would be very time-consuming as the extremely small laser beam must individually cure each tiny segment of the model.
Complicating matters, cell viability was a major concern. Previous experiments by a Korean research team that compared extrusion technology to DLP 3D-printing technology showed that more than half of the cells would die in the extrusion process, and give off signals to neighboring cells detrimental to functional material integration with the surrounding tissues. The DLP technology, however, improved the cell viability by 80-90%.
Building a custom DLP printer from scratch emerged as the only realistic solution. Serendipitously, Vincent met two key collaborators almost simultaneously: Riley Patten, a very bright undergrad student with expertise in 3D printing technology, and Karine Blandel, senior manager of technology and strategic cooperations in the Boston office of In-Vision, an Austrian-based manufacturer of advanced DLP light engines for 3D printing.
“Because DLP technology cures an entire layer of the image simultaneously, it works much faster for producing larger models,” Riley explained. “And, because its speed and efficiency drastically reduce the amount of UV light exposure on the cells, it could substantially increase post-print cell viability. We’re talking from 40-60% cell viability with other methods to 80-90% with DLP. Not killing the cells is obviously a primary goal, so that makes DLP friendlier in every way.”