Print this page
June 18, 2013

3-D printing adds depth to medical research, care

Written by
With a little hot plastic and a 3-D printer, Kenneth Sloan, Ph.D., can create almost anything. His printers hummed one recent afternoon, spraying layer after layer of plastic that would become a human sternum, ready for an experiment, in just a few hours.

Sloan, an associate professor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, operates UAB’s 3-D Print Lab, a room on the first floor of Campbell Hall where five printers bring computer images to life, 1/100 of an inch at a time.

Shelves in the lab display pieces he and his team have made—from a fully-functional Rubik’s cube and Torus knot to a human brain and lamina cribrosa, the mesh structure at the back of the eye. All the team needs is a CT scan or computer-aided design—and $20 per cubic inch—to get printing.

“We do everything from protein models to maps of the world,” Sloan said. “As far as medicine is concerned, we can make models of brains and jaws, as well as prosthetics and implants. People are already printing artificial heart valves and bones. Anything made with homogenous materials can be created with the printer.”

What they can’t print is new organs, Sloan said. But with polylactic acid (PLA), a non-toxic plastic, he said he can create porous, biodegradable scaffolding on which scientists could potentially grow organs from a patient’s cells.

Sloan said 3-D printing will have a role in regenerative medicine, with the scaffolding to support new organs and the potential for custom implants and prosthetics for patients.

The objects won’t just benefit medicine through patient care.

Crawford Downs, Ph.D., a researcher in the Department of Ophthalmology, had Sloan print an eight-inch model of the lamina cribrosa, which is naturally 1.6 millimeters wide. He told UAB Magazine the 3-D model would help researchers understand the complexities of the structure and aid in fundraising by having donors see what researchers are working with.

“Something you can hold in your hand is a powerful tool,” Downs said. “You can pick it up, twist it around in space, viewing it from different angles. You start to understand how complicated the structure is, and that leads to this hypothesis-forming cascade—it really is a great aid to research.”

Sloan is available to collaborate with researchers across the UAB campus to create what they need. The possibilities are possibly endless.

To contact Sloan and the UAB 3-D Print Lab, fill out the online form here or email

Click here for Matt Windsor’s full story from UAB Magazine about how UAB departments are collaborating with the 3-D lab.