DIY bio now possible via 3D Print Exchange

The National Institutes of Health’s open source platform lets users search, download and share biomedical 3D print files, tutorials and educational materials.

Imagine if, before surgery, doctors could analyze a replica of a baby’s heart that showed its congenital defects. They would know precisely where to cut and where to patch before ever touching a scalpel.

That kind of life-saving work is now possible, thanks to resources like the Heart Library. The library is part of the National Institutes of Health’s 3D Print Exchange -- an open, interactive website for researchers worldwide that offers tools, data and opportunity, NIH’s Scientific Program Analyst Darrell Hurt explained at Thursday’s GSA DigitalGov Citizen Services Summit.

The website stores data of 3D printable objects, biomedical science and a collection of tools, or “tools engine,” all enabled by open-source software and open data. Users can search, download and share biomedical 3D print files, modeling tutorials and educational materials, according to NIH.

Along with the application programming interfaces developed by NIH and other contributors, “DIY bio” is now possible, Hurt said, allowing doctors to adapt the data to their needs the same way information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is available to various weather companies.

The 3D Print Exchange also hosts government-funded research data found in scientific repositories, which some scientists and educators may have trouble accessing directly. Since its debut last year, the site has about 2,000 registered users, 5,000 models and tens of thousands of hits, according to Hurt.

While the site opens NIH’s own data, it also allows for crowdsourcing. This website has “content generated by users from across the world, who will upload their designs, who will upload their models, their data, whatever it might be,” Hurt said.

3D printing, as Hurt puts it, will further change the way manufacturing and education are handled. Alternative learning and 3D printer-based curriculums have already been implemented in some private schools.

“We are creating a new lab apparatus with 3D printers that you cannot buy,” Hurt said. NIH is also using these printers to make models of biological materials and pieces of cells and proteins that can be used for developing new flu vaccines, new assays for drug discoveries as well as lab gadgets and tools otherwise unavailable.

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