Thursday, 07 August 2014 09:53

New NIH 3D Print Exchange Offers Open Access To Three-Dimensional Printing Tools

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HurtDarrell Hurt recently launched the NIH 3D Print Exchange.
Photo courtesy of Darrell Hurt
In Hollywood and in 3D molecular printing, you start with a script. But the scripts that Darrell Hurt offers bioscience researchers help them to make molecular discoveries more easily. Hurt is the section head at the Computational Biology Bioinformatics and Computational Biosciences Branch at the NIH, where he recently launched the NIH 3D Print Exchange. The Exchange offers open-access to ready-to-use scripts, the instructions that drive 3D printers, so scientists can turn their .pdb and other data files into print-it-yourself plastic models.

Three-dimensional printed models are more than simple presentation aids or gimmicks, says Hurt. They are research tools in their own right. "Every time I give researchers a 3D print of their molecule or their microscopic whatever-it-is-that-they're-studying, they learn something. I gave a print of hemagglutinin to a researcher here...who has been studying the structure of that protein using complicated 3D software for 15 years. But when I gave [a 3D printed model] to him, he said 'Oh, I never noticed that before.' And he did it within 90 seconds," Hurt said.

From making new organs to modeling proteins, 3D printing has big potential in science. Hurt, who premiered the 3D Print Exchange June 18 at the White House's first-ever Maker Faire, was trained as a crystallographer and learned the critical importance of three-dimensionality in structural biology. "Molecular models and 3D everything was very interesting to me. I heard about the [3D printing] technology in early 2001 or 2002 and saw the value in printing molecules, but it was only in late 2007 that we got our first 3D printer."

While helping NIH researchers model proteins, Hurt generated a pile of scripts and thought there should be a way to share them with researchers elsewhere. "There was an opportunity with the HHS Ignite program, which was basically a small amount of seed money... to develop ideas into prototypes," Hurt explained. "So we said 'Let's build scripts but also a database and website around that allowing us to share these, and share the models as well.'"

3D proteinA 3D printed protein model.
Photo courtesy of Darrell Hurt.
The 3D Print Exchange is the result. Currently it has three "products," according to Hurt. There is a "discover" database of already written and now ready-to-share 3D printing scripts for downloading. The "create" function, allows scientists to import data in a .pdb format directly for automatic translation into a 3D printable file. "Pymol is a viewer for molecular data that you might can turn into a .pdb file. So what we do is we use a program similar to Pymol called Chimera and we use it in an automated way to import that .pdb data and turn it into something that's 3D printable." This ensures that what a researcher sends in becomes "something that's 3D printable in a very repeatable and standardized way." The "engage" part of the site is a forum for biologists, computational experts, and bioengineers to discuss 3D printable files, sharing tips and tricks. All three products are open access.

In addition to protein models, the database houses scripts for medical and anatomical models, including cells and tissues, as well as 3D scripts for printing out custom labware. "Somebody I know is trying to build a custom 96-well plate for high-throughput screening of drugs," said Hurt. "She approached a company and they said 'Yeah we can make it for you no problem, but you have to order 100,000 of them.' She was able to print 50 of them at extremely good quality for about $1,000."

But the 3D printed models are also useful for teaching and for communicating science to the public, he believes. "Imagine what they can do for teaching and helping other people understand these things very quickly," Hurt said.

But can he imagine a giant walk-through cell model, featuring every known protein rendered into 3D-printed models? Hurt laughed. "Theoretically, it could be done. If you had 3D data for everything inside the cell, you could theoretically print it." But Hurt thought an entire cell was still beyond the reach of the 3D printer. "You may have seen walk-through cells at science museums, and they're open and people can walk through them. In reality the cell is so packed that you couldn't squeeze through it. It'd be like a ball pit."

Christina Szalinski

Christina is a science writer for the American Society for Cell Biology. She earned her Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

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