Researchers at Louisiana Tech University have developed a method for using consumer-grade 3-D printers and materials to fabricate custom medical implants embedded with antibacterial and chemotherapeutic compounds. The researchers created filament extruders that can make medical-quality 3-D printing filaments. These filaments have specialized properties for drug delivery and can result in smart drug-delivering medical implants or catheters, according to the research team.

“Through the addition of nanoparticles or other additives, this technology becomes much more viable using a common 3-D printing material that is already biocompatible,” said Jeffery Weisman, a doctoral student in Louisiana Tech’s biomedical engineering program. “The material can be loaded with antibiotics or other medicinal compounds, and the implant can be naturally broken down by the body over time.”

The team developed what it says is an innovative approach that overcomes many of the limitations of current drug-delivery systems. Antibiotic implants, or beads, typically are made from bone cement that is hand-mixed by a surgeon during a surgical procedure and contains toxic carcinogenic substances. These beads, which are actually a type of Plexiglas, do not break down in the body and a second surgery is required to remove them. Weisman and his team’s custom 3-D printed filaments can be made of bioplastics, which can be absorbed by the body, thus avoiding the need for additional surgery.

The new 3-D printing process allows for the creation of partially hollow beads that provide a greater surface area and increased drug delivery and control. “Currently, embedding additives in plastic requires industrial-scale facilities to ensure proper dispersion throughout the extruded plastic,” says Dr. David Mills, professor of biological sciences and biomedical engineering at Louisiana Tech. “Our method enables dispersion on a tabletop scale, allowing researchers to easily customize additives to the desired levels.”