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How a $200 3D printed box is changing antibiotics discovery

McMaster University researchers have developed a low-cost device, PFIbox, capable of analyzing 6,000 bacteria samples at once

It’s not just bioprinting technology that stands to revolutionize biomedical research and drug discovery. As researchers from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada have shown, even low-cost 3D printing can be used to create helpful and innovative tools for medical research.

The project in question has involved 3D printing a small black box—the Printed Fluorescence Imaging Box (PFIbox)—which can collect huge amount of data for the purpose of discovering new antibiotics. Though unassuming, the 3D printed black box is equipped with LED lights which have the capacity to analyze over 6,000 samples of bacteria at a time, providing an efficient way to study potential antibiotics.

Did I mention that the PFIbox is low cost? According to the research team, the 3D printed medical research device is made up of nine printable structural parts and costs only about $200 to make. To make things even easier, the pieces can be printed in about a day and can be assembled in mere minutes.

In using the device, researchers introduce bacteria into the box, which are then exposed to LED lights. This functions to excite fluorescent proteins in the bacteria, which provides vital information about how cells are responding to antibiotics. The data gathered from the PFIbox is transmitted wirelessly to the research team from the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research.

“3D printing is allowing us to create tools and instrumentation that simply don’t exist yet,” commented Eric Brown, the infectious disease researcher who worked on the project along with Shawn French and Brittney Coutts. “Here, we have designed and built an absolutely cutting-edge lab instrument for about $200. It’s simply game-changing for our work to discover new antibiotics.”

The research surrounding the 3D printed PFIbox, which was recently published in the journal Cell Systems, has also been made open source so that research teams anywhere can recreate the antibiotic research device.

PFIbox antibiotics
Eric Brown, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences and member of the M.G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research, McMaster University

“We fully expect—in fact, we hope—people take the code for this tool and improve upon it,” said French. “We want people to have full access to what we think is a very important new development in the battle against superbugs.”

Antibiotics are a vital part of healthcare, as they counter and fight against microorganisms and bacteria which might have dangerous consequences to our health. Many of us, for instance, will have likely been prescribed penicillin for a respiratory tract infection at some point in our lives.

Unfortunately, new “superbugs” are being discovered which are more resistant to existing antibiotics, so the search for new and more effective antibiotics is never-ending. Fortunately, advances in research, such as the 3D printed PFIbox, are helping scientists on the journey to new treatments.

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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