3D printing doesn’t always have to be used for new, high-tech applications such as printing tailor-made medical devices. Researchers at Uppsala University have used 3D printing to create an inexpensive tool to make live image videos of living cells.

In a paper published in the journal PLOS, the researchers used 3D printed parts and off-the shelf electronics and smartphones to convert standard inverted microscopes to produce high-resolution imaging studies of living cells.

“What we have done in this project isn’t rocket science, but it shows you how 3D-printing will transform the way scientists work around the world," Johan Kreuger, senior lecturer at the Department of Medical Cell Biology at Uppsala University said in a press release. "3D-printing has the potential to give researchers with limited funding access to research methods that were previously too expensive.”

The live imaging system the researchers developed is used in their study of cells aimed at learning how cells respond to different treatments, drugs or toxins. The lab’s main focus deals with the roles of exocyst complex in the recruitment of intracellular vesicles to the plasma membrane.

Conventional live cell imaging equipment can cost as much as $10,000, which can be out of reach for some labs. In their PLOS article the researchers explain that the main reason for the high prices is the need for strict environmental control to guarantee normal cell behavior during the imaging period. This requires additional expensive equipment to maintain stable and optimal temperature and pH conditions for cell growth, to minimize exposure to light to reduce phototoxicity, and to minimize evaporation to avoid changes in osmolarity.

The system Kreuger and co-workers developed cost a fraction of a commercially produced live-cell microscope by adapting a common inverted microscope for use with a smartphone together with the addition of a humidifying module to make the microscope compatible with imaging of cell culture systems that are highly sensitive to evaporation.

Kreuger believes that 3D printing will not only allow development of medical devices, but also allow researchers to create and modify research equipment to ask new questions and seek new solutions to laboratory problems.

“The technology presented here can readily be adapted and modified according to the specific need of researchers, at a low cost," he says. "Indeed, in the future, it will be much more common that scientists create and modify their own research equipment, and this should greatly propel technology development.”

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