Riboflavin, also known as vitamin B2, is a micronutrient and food additive commonly found in breakfast cereals and other processed foods. It’s yellow or yellowish orange in color and is sometimes used as a food coloring. Now it’s being researched for use as a biocompatible “ink” ingredient for 3D printed implants and other structures to be placed in the human body.
3D printing has enormous potential to enable mass customization of medical products. Think of having an implant crafted to fit you and only you. How about 3D printing structures on demand rather than ordering from a manufacturer?
Conformis, an othopedic medical device company, makes individualized metal joint implants from imaging studies using a milling machine. The milling machine creates a custom-made prosthesis for knee replacement surgery. Patients have to wait about 7 weeks for their prosthesis to be made, however. 3D printing promises to be much faster since the machines are small and relatively inexpensive.
One issue has been the biological incompatibility of most of the polymers used in 3D printing. In typical use, a spool of polymer “ink” in the form of a long thread is fed through a 3D printer nozzle. Tiny dots of polymer are melted and laid down on a two dimensional surface and built up vertically until the piece being manufactured is complete.
Now according to Fierce Medical Devices, researchers at North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Laser Zentrum Hannover have used riboflavin as a nontoxic polymerization agent to 3D print structures that could one day become implantable medical devices.
While there is much more research and development to be done before this becomes a practical commercial technique, the technology is possible today. Next step is for a hungry startup or tech-savvy medical device company to commercialize this work. Perhaps when you have a surgery performed in 5-10 years, there will be a 3D printer in the next room churning out an implant “just for you.”
Takeaways: trends like mass customization and technologies like 3D printing are converging. Even in the relatively slow-moving healthcare industry with FDA regulation, there is a need for new, different, better ways of treating patients. 3D printed devices are yet another disruptive technology. At first, they will be crude and not very useful. As time goes on and the technologies evolve, however, they will have a significant effect.