Priscila Melo is a 27-years-old biomedical engineer. Originally from the Azores (Portugal), she moves to the Newcastle University (UK) for her PhD which focuses on the processing of bone implants for load bearing applications using additive manufacturing techniques.
Priscila, could you let us know about your background and what brought you into 3D printing in the first place?
I am a Biomedical Engineer specialized in biomaterials and medical devices. I did both my bachelor and master degree in Portugal. Since I started my bachelor degree my goal was to work with biomaterials, exploring new solutions and manufacturing processes. My interest in 3D printing specifically as a manufacturing technique emerged during my master degree when a friend of mine started his PhD on 3D printing of porcelain. I read on it intensively and noticed that research on its application for medical devices was quite recent. Biofabrication was what caught my eye. The idea of having the image of an organ and being able to print it and use it as a replacement for someone who needs it, the thought of a world without a transplant waiting list. It is easier said than done. However, the interest didn’t die there. Medical devices are a solution and improved people’s life every day. Being able to process these devices in a personalized way in order to attend special needs was also interesting. This became my goal, attempt a PhD 3D printing of medical devices to improve my skills in the area and be able to work on it in the future. Very specific indeed, which limited my choices, however I never discarded the use of other techniques in case something like that didn’t show up. I guess I was lucky enough since I am currently exploring 2 additive manufacturing routes to process bone implants.
Could you explain the subject of your PhD?
This project is sponsored by the EPSRC and GTS (Glass Technology Services), an independent glass laboratory and Consultancy Company, focused on glass research and development. I am working with GTS since September of 2015, being my PhD incorporated in the research and development sector. My work aim is to develop a bone implant that incorporates a bioactive ceramic, Apatite-Wollastonite, developed by Kokubo in 1982, and now produced at GTS as part of an R&D project. To do so I must optimize the manufacturing process and make the material commercially viable for medical applications.
Which technologies and materials are you working with?
I am approaching 2 types of techniques, Binder jetting and Fused Filament Fabrication, also known as FDM. With binder jetting, I am producing porous AW implants for load bearing applications. This is the main part of my project and includes the optimization of this process, and the material commercialization for orthopaedics. With FFF I am manufacturing a polymer/ceramic filament that will be printed and work as a bone scaffold (cell growth platform). The main objective is to provide the polymer the capacity to attract and guide bone cells once implanted, since it does not have it inherently. This ability will come from the ceramic, Apatite-Wollastonite, which is bioactive. Bioactive materials have the capacity to induce the formation of an apatite layer between the implant and the tissue. This layer has an identical composition to human bone mineral phase.
What are the challenges for the medical field, considering the 3D printing technologies?
The medical field is full of solutions, however none of them is perfect, and all have failures. The main goal of a researcher is to find those gaps and fill them to make them better. 3D printing technologies are very important because of the personalization character, but on the contrary of what is thought, it won’t make devices cheaper. In my case, doing the economic overview, the developed device won’t be cheaper than the commercially available ones, but it will be mechanically stronger and serve a wider range of applications, and that is the benefit of having it. Being able to make tailored solutions is a big step. All cases are different, some are easier to treat and benefit from common solutions, but others need special attention. These cases are the ones we target with 3D printing, at least for now. In the future, once the technology is well understood and available, then the dream would be having machines installed in health units and even be able to “print” in situ, directly into the body. But that is a future far ahead, for now, things are kept simple and improvement of existing solutions is the main focus.
What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?
I have witnessed some amazing progress in 3D printing, but I think the one I was most excited about was the printing of cardiac cells and the fact that you could actually see them pulsing, just like a myocardium cells. It was like seeing a heart beating in small scale. This study is going on at Sydney’s Heart Research Institute (HRI) and brings us one step closer to organ printing, but once again, it is a long road, and a hard one. This types of breakthrough is what makes 3D printing fascinating to me as a postgraduate.
What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you:
- As a postgraduate?
I consider myself new in this world of 3D printing, and so far all I want is to understand things and be able to use my knowledge to help and improve people life. As a PhD student in my first year, I didn’t make any amazing discoveries, but some of the results I obtained look promising and confirm the potential of these techniques and will be reported in scientific publications.
- As a woman?
As a woman, it a whole new world of possibilities. Women in this area usually come from other subjects, but they are mainly situated in the medical sector. This is due to the fact that 3D printing is highly associated with engineering and a relatively new technology, none of these factors contribute to increasing the number of women in the area.
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?
I think that the promotion of the technology in schools by female professionals is a great step to seed the idea. By performing outreach in schools and in the university, my experience is that usually girls never expect to see you there, and once they know what you do and how it works they become interested and are curious about it. That is the biggest step in my opinion. But all start within their own range of interest and is always dependent of it.
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