Medical & Dental

U.S. Military tests prove it is possible to deploy 3D printed medical aid in the desert

The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) and the U.S. Military Academy West Point, New York, have conducted a pilot program investigating the potential of using 3D printers in a desert deployment zone. Labelled the Fabrication in Austere Environments, or FAB AE, program, the experiment showed that it is possible to 3D print and rapidly deploy a range of medical devices to treat those injured on the battlefield.

Sidestepping logistical challenges, reducing transport costs, and saving time, the findings from Fab AE could catalyse a fundamental shift in the way both the armed forces and medicine in general apply remote healthcare and respond to clinical crises.

“3D printing provides the ability to produce tailored healthcare solutions that meet the specific needs of the warfighter deployed to austere locations,” comments Dr. Vincent Ho, principal investigator for the FAB AE initiative and chair of the USU Department of Radiology, “The ability to build health-related products in near real time when and where needed also enhances operational flexibility for our commanders in the field.”

“As we continue to meet the needs of our nation’s warfighters, this pilot project is also the first step in manufacturing healthcare products on-site to help identify and treat battlefield injuries and medical conditions.”

Medical response on the battlefield

FAB AE is part of the USU’s federally funded 4-Dimensional Bioprinting, Biofabrication, and Biomanufacturing Program, also known as 4D Bio3. Collaborating with the USU on the program is The Geneva Foundation, the Naval Research Laboratory, and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Over five years, the goal of 4D Bio3 is to develop 3D bioprinting technology to meet the priorities of the Department of Defense (DoD) and, “ultimately” translate the development to “clinical medical defense care and training solutions.” Research for the program is centralized a 4,000 sq. ft. facility at USU’s premises in Bethesda, Maryland.

The latest advance for the field saw a “ruggedized” 3D printer sent to an undisclosed desert location. Supplied alongside the system was a basic supply for material, and human mesenchymal stem/stromal cells (hMSCs) for 3D bioprinting applications. Under the direction of Army Lt. Col. Jason Barnhill, the system was used to 3D print devices including antibiotic-laced bandages, a knee cartilage meniscus, and a scalpel.

The antibiotic-laced bandages were created by 3D printing a hydrogel layer onto a structural layer. The process took just five minutes to complete, and was designed to gradually elute antibiotics into a wound over several days. In a military first, the file used to produce a knee meniscus model, was sent digitally from a stateside facility to the secret location and printed onsite, acting as a potential gateway to other complex files being sent for on-demand production in the future. All devices in the experiment were made using a material that could be sterilized on-site, meaning that tools like the scalpel could be used immediately.

“We believe this program has the potential to reduce logistical challenges and costs for transporting medical supplies to austere environments, which could also be applied to our special operations forces in remote locations,” adds Dr. Ho. “Instead of carrying tons of supplies, they could just print them using a, hopefully, more portable, light-weight version in the future that could fit in their pack.”

On land, above Earth, and at sea

4D Biois currently running in parallel to a 3D printing initiative aboard the International Space Station (ISS) which is also of interest to the military. 3D bioprinter manufacturer nScrypt, and spaceflight equipment developer Techshot that recently sent the 3D BioFabrication Facility to the ISS also worked with USU on the recent FAB AE mission.

Following successful field work in the desert, the hope is that 4D Bio3‘s “ruggedized” 3D bioprinter can also be test aboard the U.S, Navy’s hospital ship, the USNS Mercy. Prior tests on 3D printing at sea have been undertaken by students at the University of Rhode Island using a Formlabs Form 2 SLA system.

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Featured image shows the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) logo 3D printed on a bioprinter. Screenshot via Uniformed Services University