Signals Blog

Andy Bell, a writer working with Toronto3dprinting, loves to write about different topics related to technological gadgets and gears. 3D printing is his current interest.

This is a CVT anesthesiologist, standing in front of an ultrasound machine, in the operating room at the University of Miami. The view on the monitor is the four chamber view of the heart. Picture by J.Sciarra, MD 2008.

Though ultrasound technology is commonly associated with the imaging of fetuses in the womb, its applications are much more than just imaging. The acoustic waves generated by ultrasound devices can be used to destroy harmful cancer cells, for non-destructive testing (NDT) and much more. Now that scientists at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore have developed a new ultrasound device that produces sharper medical images using 3D printed lenses, doctors and surgeons will have better control and accuracy in performing non-invasive diagnoses and greater control over laser generated photoacoustic waves for precise procedures such as medical surgeries and microfluidic research.

After suffering a heart attack with failure of muscle tissue, this tissue is usually substituted with scar tissue but the muscle loss is permanent. However, there are cardiac stem cells in the heart that are able to regenerate muscle tissue, but their capacity for remodelling and regeneration is limited. Thus, major efforts have been made to understand cell behavior and develop treatments to improve tissue regeneration. Low-intensity pulsed ultrasound treatments might be a useful tool to explore in the field of heart cell therapy.

Before 3D printing technology existed, conventional ultrasound devices could only produce basic acoustic waves (Plane waves), which only focus on a single point. The main advantage of this new ultrasound device over the conventional one is that instead of glass, 3D printing with clear photopolymer resin lenses are used.

Generally, in conventional ultrasound devices, ultrasound waves are produced by firing sound waves at the lens or a glass surface, which triggers high-frequency vibrations. The heat that results from this causes rapid expansion of the lens and generates high-frequency vibrations that produce ultrasound waves in the machine.

Assoc Prof Claus-Dieter Ohl, of NTU, is quoted saying that advances in 3D printing technology “is an exciting discovery for the scientific community as it opens new doors for research and medical surgery.” Now researchers can use the sound waves to check the elastic properties of cells in a petri dish by monitoring how they respond to forces. Doctors can use this device to identify harmful tumour cells. This novel ultrasound device will pave the way for more precision in performing medical procedures that involve the use of ultrasound waves to kill tumours, deliver drugs into targeted cells, and loosen blood clots.

This exciting discovery rejuvenated the ultrasound market which is now expected to reach US$6.5 billion by 2020.

3D technology used to focus ultrasound waves that could detect harmful cancer cells

A challenge in detecting cancer cells is that these cells often break free from their locations and circulate through the blood stream, which allows them to form new tumours in different locations in the body. Until now, finding these harmful cells has proven difficult for researchers and clinicians because of their scarcity: there is a possibility of only one to ten cancerous cells in a one-millilitre sample of a patient’s blood.

The new ultrasonic device with 3D printing technology allows complex lens shapes to focus ultrasound waves that could detect these harmful cancer cells. Now doctors will also be able to predict whether a patient’s tumour will spread to other parts of the body and to monitor how these cells are responding to treatment.

A lot of rigorous testing had been conducted on this novel ultrasound device, and the findings have been published in various journals by the American Institute of Physics. Now industry partners are keen to develop commercial applications with this 3D printing technology, and NTU scientists are in talks with various healthcare partners who are interested in developing prototypes of this device for medical and research applications.

Why 3D printed lenses are better

Ultrasound devices with 3D printing technology can create complex lens shapes that produce sharper images. The 3D printed lens allows ultrasound waves to be focused at multiple sites or any specific targeted site – something that is not currently possible with conventional machines.

With the advanced 3D printed lens, limitations of glass are overcome and customized and complex 3D lenses can be made that will produce sharper images. The big advantage of this device is that it will be cheaper and easier to produce.



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Signals accepts guest blog posts on topics relevant to stem cells and regenerative medicine, as well as submissions for its Right Turn Friday feature. See for more information. The opinions, accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made in guest posts are the responsibility of the author only and not the editor of Signals or CCRM, publisher of Signals. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with the author.