Few things today are as pervasive as the smart phone. Not only are they our cameras, our maps, our personal concierge and our pocket flashlights, but they are now assuming a higher calling as point-of-care (POC) devices. POC devices make it possible to detect health conditions without medical training or specialized equipment, providing a much needed solution for remote regions that lack reliable transportation. To further the cause of early detection and prevention, Dr. Mei He and graduate student Kimberly Plevniak of Kansas State University Olathe have set out to develop a smart phone POC for anemia detection with the help of 3D printing.

A key element to introducing new POC devices hinges on the use of microfluidics, otherwise known as the manipulation of fluids on a small, typically sub-millimeter, scale. Unfortunately, prototyping and developing POC devices complex enough to incorporate microfluidics typically calls for specialized facilities, techniques and infrastructure. With 3D printing, however, the Kansas State researchers have cleverly devised a clear plastic chip for POC anemia detection that can be 3D printed on a desktop machine at a fraction of the standard cost.

Anemia refers to the state of having a low count of oxygen-rich red blood cells, which is a sign that the body’s tissues are not properly nourished for optimal function. A prolonged bout of anemia not only causes fatigue, but can also cause damage to major organs, sometimes leading to more severe conditions. Yet once detected, anemia is easy to treat and often involves little more than taking vitamins or modifying one’s diet.

To develop their POC for anemia, Plevniak and Dr. He worked with D3 Technologies, a design and engineering systems integrator and 3D Systems partner based in Springfield, MO, to find the best 3D printer, material and print set-up for their needs. Through D3’s guidance, the researchers landed on the ProJet® 1200, a micro-Stereolithography (SLA) system no larger than a coffeemaker. Designed for small, precise, detail-rich parts and casting patterns, the ProJet 1200 was the perfect match for the clear plastic chips the Kansas State prototype required.

"We selected the ProJet 1200 for this project due to its high-quality resolution, material choices and reasonable pricing," says Plevniak. "Having fine detail is important when printing very small microfluidic channels.” Housed in these channels is a reactive solution that changes color if anemia is present, which can be seen through VisiJet® FTX Clear material. With access to this 3D printed POC and a smart phone, anyone can detect anemia in less than 60 seconds.

Having diligently researched printer options before purchasing, Plevniak says she also likes the way resin cartridges are loaded into the ProJet 1200.  “Other 3D printers use pumps instead of cartridges; those get messy and break down too easily,” Plevniak says. “The ProJet 1200 allows us to focus on the production of our chips without worrying about a printer malfunction or cleaning up after each print."

The use of 3D printing not only reduces the prototyping process from a matter of days to a matter of hours, but the ProJet 1200 can be operated with minimal training and oversight. “If you look at all the qualities of 3D printing – fast, one-step process, easy to use – it is perfect for this type of prototyping,” says Plevniak. Taken to its logical conclusion, local centers could then be outfitted with 3D printers of their own, enabling further diagnostic self-sufficiency.

To make communication between patients and caregivers more complete and streamlined, Dr. He and Plevniak are working with a colleague to develop a companion app for their 3D printed POC chip that manages the patient data gathered and forwards it to the medical professional of choice.

Dr. He and Plevniak have filed an invention disclosure with the Kansas State University Research Foundation, a non-profit corporation responsible for managing technology transfer activities. Read the full case study here.