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See how researchers 3D-print a soft medical sensor on an expanding lung

The motion-capture-inspired method could one day be used on other moving organs, including hearts.

The deformable 3D-printed sensors can move along with expanding and contracting organs like lungs.

McAlpine Research Group, University of Minnesota

3D printing can be tricky, even when the surface you're printing on holds perfectly still. Now imagine 3D-printing a critical medical sensor on an expanding and contracting organ like a lung or a heart. That's a whole new level of difficulty, but it's a challenge that may be surmountable.

A University of Minnesota (UMN) team of computer scientists and mechanical engineers published a study on 3D-printed deformable sensors in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday. The university released an eye-opening video showing the printing technique in action.

The method uses motion capture technology to track the placement of a soft sensor during the 3D-printing process. The team used markers similar to those used in motion capture for movies. They ramped up to successfully printing a soft sensor on an artificially inflated animal lung. 

The technology is still in the early stages, but it has many possible uses for diagnosing and monitoring medical conditions, and for the treatment of wounds. The team sees it as being adaptable to both outside and inside the body. It could potentially even be used on a beating heart.

The UMN McAlpine Research Group led by mechanical engineer Michael McAlpine previously demonstrated a method for printing electronics directly onto the skin of a rotating human hand.     

The coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on robotic assistance for medical professionals, from robots that take vital signs to ones that can run coronavirus tests.  

"In the future, 3D printing will not be just about printing but instead be part of a larger autonomous robotic system," McAlpine said in a UMN research brief on Wednesday. "This could be important for diseases like COVID-19 where health care providers are at risk when treating patients."