Medical & Dental

MetShape aids flu research with high-precision 3D printed virus model

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MetShape, a Germany-based 3D printing service provider specializing in small-scale metal parts, has 3D printed a high-precision model of a virus to be used in flu research.

Produced using the firm’s own Lithography-based Metal Manufacturing (LMM) technology, the model will be used by CIC nanoGUNE, the Basque Nanoscience Cooperative Research Center, to study the transmission mechanisms of viruses.

Alexander Bittner, a research professor at nanoGUNE, said, “With the new possibilities through innovative manufacturing technologies, we are taking a big step closer to our long-term goal of protecting as many people as possible from virus infections.”

The 30mm flu virus model 3D printed by MetShape. Photo via MetShape.
The 30mm flu virus model 3D printed by MetShape. Photo via MetShape.

Studying the transmission mechanisms of viruses

Viruses like SARS-CoV-2 and influenza are largely transmitted through the water droplets, or aerosols, we spray when we speak, cough, or sneeze. Virus-laden liquid aerosols lose their water content very quickly in the air, drying up and potentially deactivating the virus particles within. On the other hand, the loss of mass from the evaporation results in a longer residence time for the viruses in the air. It’s this fine balance that determines just how transmittable a virus is.

As such, a deep understanding of virus aerosols is crucial if we’re to explore the transmission mechanisms they rely on, which ultimately enables us to develop preventative measures.

CIC nanoGUNE is currently investigating both the physics and chemistry of virus aerosols. The center’s research requires virus models that are as detailed, small, and precise as possible, so it employs the use of nanoscale molecular aggregates regularly. Unfortunately in the case of influenza, these models have a diameter of just 120nm, making it very difficult to study the capillaries that run between the spike proteins on the surface of the virus.

To complement the nanoscale wetting and dewetting studies, nanoGUNE is increasingly making use of water/virus models at the centimeter scale, enlarging structures such as capillaries to make them easier to study.

Small-scale metal 3D printing with MetShape

In a recent investigation, nanoGUNE needed a centimeter-scale flu model with spike capillaries less than 1mm in size, otherwise the force of gravity in the wetting study would invalidate the results. Such a resolution would’ve been impossible to achieve using a process like binder jetting or powder bed fusion, so nanoGUNE turned to MetShape.

MetShape’s LMM 3D printing technology is a two-step one, in which binder-infused metal feedstocks are photopolymerized into cross-linked parts before being sintered to achieve thermal debinding. The process is particularly well-suited to small and precise metal part production, making it an ideal option in this case.

The company 3D printed a 250000:1 scale flu virus model, giving it a diameter of around 30mm. Since LMM is a support-free process, there were no post-processing steps required and the model offered excellent surface quality straight out of the build chamber.

When it came time to conduct the study, the metal model performed significantly better than a larger polymer counterpart. Due to its smaller size, the metal model featured the correct wetting characteristics. On the other hand, the conventional polymer model accumulated excessive water mass which resulted in water droplets forming on the surface, ultimately invalidating the testing.

Bittner added, “Thanks to the model printed by MetShape, we can now carry out our experiments on the wetting and dewetting of water on viruses and thus achieve a new milestone in the research of virus aerosols.”

The difference in water geometry on the polymer and metal models. Photo via MetShape.
The difference in water geometry on the polymer and metal models. Photo via MetShape.

Enabling the modeling of complex anatomies

Additive manufacturing and anatomical modeling go hand in hand, whether that be the anatomy of a virus or the anatomy of a human being. Just recently, 3D printed anatomical models developed by rapid prototyping service provider Laser Modelling Israel (LMI) aided surgeons in a complex segmentation surgery for conjoined twins. Produced using HP’s Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) technology, the 3D printed models were practiced on by surgeons before performing the surgery, which was set to be extremely difficult with multiple complications. 

Elsewhere, industrial 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys recently partnered with digital services firm Ricoh USA to provide point-of-care 3D printed anatomical modeling services to healthcare facilities. The partnership will see Stratasys’ 3D printing technology integrated into Ricoh USA’s Ricoh 3D for Healthcare workflow in order to increase access to 3D printed medical models for medical facilities and clinicians. 

Before the new year, Stratasys even introduced a new software module, the Digital Anatomy Creator, for its Digital Anatomy 3D printers to enhance the production of 3D printed anatomical models

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Featured image shows the 30mm flu virus model 3D printed by MetShape. Photo via MetShape.