Iowa City Press-Citizen: A Petri Dish of Ideas

Sunday, March 10, 2013

New UI venture leading charge in variety of areas, from growing organs to designing circuit boards

How the bioprinter works
How the bioprinter works: UI assistant professor of engineering Ibrahim Ozbolat explains how the bioprinter works.
Ibrahim Ozbolat, co-director of the Advanced Manufacturing Technology group, displays a tube of bio ink, which contains living cells, that is used to create human organs with a 3D printer at the University of Iowa Center for Computer-Aided Design on Friday.
Ibrahim Ozbolat, co-director of the Advanced Manufacturing Technology group, displays a tube of bio ink, which contains living cells, that is used to create human organs with a 3D printer at the University of Iowa Center for Computer-Aided Design on Friday. / David Scrivner / Iowa City Press-Citizen photos
By Tara Bannow
Iowa City Press-Citizen

The advent of 3D printing has revolutionized the manufacturing industry, but applying the practice to medicine has presented challenges.

The process commonly involves heating up plastic to semi-molten states. The traditional 3D printers used in the University of Iowa’s Center for Computer-Aided Design — located on Madison Street across from the Campus Recreation Center — would quickly destroy delicate cells before researchers could attempt to grow them into organs.

“We cannot use this kind of thing,” said Ibrahim Ozbolat, co-director of the Advanced Manufacturing Technology (or AMTecH) group. “It’s not possible because cells are very fragile.”

The newly-formed AMTecH has been using 3D printers, which use computerized models to print solid objects, to create a variety of gadgets. In the biomanufacturing sector, which Ozbolat heads, they use a unique bioprinter designed by a student that’s nimble enough to print cells and grow them into blood vessels.

The bioprinter has multiple arms that work simultaneously, and it looks much different from other 3D printers in that the product it prints is produced in tiny rows of dots along a petri dish. Those dishes are then placed into an incubator, where they hopefully will flourish.

The team’s current goal is a lofty one: to grow an entire human pancreas, the organ that produces the hormone insulin.

The process of growing an entire organ would require building up small tissues. Ozbolat, an assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, said he thinks his team will be able to grow a pancreas in the lab in three years, and be able to transplant it within three more years.

Ozbolat said he’s not interested in the money or publicity that would accompany such a feat, he just wants to create something that will help people suffering from serious illnesses.

“I really want to see something that functions and can be transplanted,” he said.

The team already has been growing cells and working with blood vessels, which form in petri dishes in the incubator, which supports growth by simulating the conditions inside the human body.

“The first time, it was three or four months ago, it was a very different feeling, making something that lives,” Ozbolat said. “It’s a great feeling.”

As conducive as the machine is designed to be when it comes to growing delicate cells, not all of them come out unscathed. Ozbolat said cell damage is often printed into the cells, sometimes at a rate of 10 percent or 15 percent of the cells.

The group has printed adult stem cells and organ-specific stem cells, but doesn’t yet have the capability to produce human embryonic stem cells, which a team at a university in Scotland announced last month it was the first to do. Ozbolat said that team had the benefit of a cutting-edge printer head that reduced cell damage in the printing process.

“Their printing system is more advanced,” he said. “That’s the benefit of their technology.”

The other division of AMTecH works with electromechancial systems, focusing primarily on circuit boards, said Tim Marler, the AMTecH co-director who heads that end. Circuit boards go in airplanes, computers, cellphones and many other items.

“It doesn’t have sex appeal, but the application is just massive,” Marler said of the circuit board. “Anything you look at that’s got electricity running through it, it’s got a circuit board.”

Downstairs in the Center for Computer-Aided Design, engineering students Ben Goerdt and Ben Weintraub use a computer program that allows them to view a circuit board on their screen from all angles, add layers and test it at different levels of heat, the main factor that destroys circuit boards.

“No one is really doing this,” Weintraub said. “Right now companies will have each layer of a circuit board drawn on wax paper and they’ll just put them on top of each other. This is kind of the future of that.”

A large room in the building contains a set of 3D screens where researchers can view and manipulate circuit boards, even virtually bring in components made from countries across the world.

In yet another room, treadmills are set up along with typical military packs that allow researchers to simulate what it’s like for a Marine. The goal is to develop ways to make life easier for soldiers in the field and to keep their endurance up, Marler said.

Marler said he predicts a massive upcoming demand for manufacturing coming back in the U.S., and many new ideas coming from the manufacturing side of things.

With that in mind, it makes sense to prepare for that wave with the creation of AMTecH, he said.

“It’s really this great petri dish of ideas,” Marler said.