Breakthrough in Disease Detection: MIT Researchers Develop Affordable 3D Printed Self-heating Microfluidic Devices

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed 3D printed self-heating microfluidic devices, offering potential applications in affordable disease detection tools.

MIT’s research team adopted multimaterial 3D printing, a cost-effective method, to create self-heating microfluidic devices in a single manufacturing step. This technique allows for customization, enabling engineers to design microfluidic devices with specific heating profiles or temperatures in designated areas. Requiring approximately $2 worth of materials, the low-cost fabrication process holds potential for use in remote regions of developing countries where access to expensive lab equipment is limited.

“Clean rooms in particular, where you would usually make these devices, are incredibly expensive to build and to run. But we can make very capable self-heating microfluidic devices using additive manufacturing, and they can be made a lot faster and cheaper than with these traditional methods. This is really a way to democratize this technology,” says Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, a Principal Scientist in MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL) and senior author of a paper describing the fabrication technique.

Self-heating microfluidic devices

The investigative team employed multi-material extrusion 3D printing. This involved the use of a degradable polymer identified as polylactic acid (PLA) and a uniquely modified version that carries copper nano-particles. The modified PLA, once converted into a resistor, gains the properties to transmit electrical current as heat. Hence, a self-heating microfluidic contraption that results from one step of a 3D printing mechanism.

“The process is intricate- imagine the PLA material as a dielectric, but its characteristics change completely once there are nanoparticle impurities. The transformation isn’t completely transparent yet but it’s evident and is consistent,” Velásquez-García mentioned.

The team addressed the tricky factors of heat conveyance and fluid leakage by integrating a thin continuous PLA coat between the resistor and the microfluidic paths. The resultant mechanism, roughly the size of a U.S. quarter, has 500 mm broad and 400 mm tall paths which simplify the flow of fluids and chemical reactions. They leveraged a single-step fabrication methodology, giving life to a prototype that can increase the fluid temperature by 4°C amid its motion from input to output.This bespoke method provides a platform for fabricating devices that can heat fluids in particular arrangements or along set gradients, thereby highlighting the technology’s versatility in an array of applications.

Despite the promising developments of the prototype, it still has limitations such as the PLA’s temperature cap at around 50°C. This limitation poses challenges for applications that demand higher temperatures. The research team is currently working on incorporating a third material suitable for temperature sensing and experimenting with the employment of printed magnets in particle sorting or alignment. Although these simplified 3D printed microfluidic systems are turning heads, continued research is crucial to improving and honing their capacities for practical uses.

MIT’s research on 3D printing within the medical field has been making waves. In the previous year, a group of researchers from MIT developed a technique for 3D printing soft replicas of human hearts that accurately represent the unique blood-pumping capacities of each heart. Using medical images to create 3D models of the heart, the researchers used a polymer-based ink to precisely create flexible heart structures.

The team created an environment that simulated pumping actions by placing sleeves around the 3D printed hearts and aortas. This allowed them to control the discharged air for rhythmic pumping. The innovative technique was used on 15 patients suffering from aortic stenosis by transforming their medical scans into 3D models. This showcased the potential of this method in creating individualized heart models for treatment evaluations.

Microfluidics: A Catalyst in Improving Point-of-Care

The integration of 3D printed microfluidics in point-of-care settings holds the potential to dramatically reshape diagnostics. Rapid prototyping and cost-effective production make 3D printing an ideal method for creating devices specifically tailored to meet distinct diagnostic requirements. As 3D printing technologies continue to advance, they present significant opportunities for improving accessibility to point-of-care diagnostics.

In the past, researchers from the University of Bristol developed an economical and open-source 3D printing technique for fabricating microfluidic devices. This method, which utilizes PolyDimethylSiloxane (PDMS), takes advantage of domestic equipment and a standard 3D printer to drive down costs and increase availability for microfluidics research. This technique bears the potential for creating low-cost point-of-care diagnostic technology, thereby affecting fields such as laboratories-on-a-chip, cell biology, and protein crystallization.

Concurrently, researchers at the Stevens Institute of Technology have leveraged computational modelling to drive innovation in microfluidics-based 3D bioprinting. They aim to use this novel technology for the production of complete human organs. In contrast to traditional extrusion-based bioprinters, these researchers’ microfluidics methodology precisely manages the flow of liquids through miniscule channels, thus enabling the creation of structures as small as tens of microns.

In this particular instance, accuracy on the cellular scale was paramount for successfully replicating biological features. The team views microfluidics as a pivotal element in surmounting the current technological barriers in 3D bioprinting, potentially redefining organ transplants by engineering intricate tissues, and even skin, directly onto wounds.

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