The neurons in our nervous system are only 0.1mm wide, the same width as an average human hair. These thin fibers house even smaller structures, like axons and receptors, that are difficult to find and study within the body. Marissa Metz, a PhD student in CSU’s biomedical science department, wanted to study the effects that opiates, like morphine and other pain medications, have on our cells, but couldn’t find a suitable way to study the neurons. “Some receptors in parts of the cell act differently,” Metz explained. “Specifically, receptors in pre-synaptic parts of the neuron don’t desensitize to opiates, but post-synaptic sides do.” Metz needed a way to separate these two parts of the neuron, in order to understand why the same receptors act differently in the same cell. With such small fibers, Metz required a very small, very precise growth chamber in order to study these cells.
Idea-2-Product’s new 3D printer was the perfect fit for the job. The Ember, a 3D printer that uses photopolymer instead of traditional filament, is able to print at a resolution ten times smaller than a neuron. This resolution allows the printer to create incredibly small and detailed constructions, and is a perfect fit for inventions in the medical field.
With that kind of precision available, Metz was able to begin work on her project. In order to study the two different parts of the cell, the PhD student needed a way to sever the two pieces without damaging the rest of the neuron. Her solution was to make a platform that is half petri dish, half microscope slide. “We’re printing a master pattern for making stamps,” Metz said of her invention. These stamps are lined with super fine ridges that will allow single neurons to grow along the slide without tangling or deforming. The stamp is made of Sylguard silicon derivative, a common material used in neuroscience.
These custom made slides are perfect for Metz’ project. “Proteins will be painted on the stamp,” Metz explained. “The presence of proteins on the cover slip will allow the adhesion of cells on that slip.” This will allow neurons to grow in the fine grooves printed on the stamp. “The cells will develop axons in the channels,” Metz said. The channels are printed so small, they are difficult to see without magnification.
The Ember’s small resolution is crucial for the neurons. “The resolution is needed to prevent cell bodies from
moving through channels.” Once the cells grow, Metz can single out a specific neuron, and separate the two parts of the neuron for her studies in a way no student has before. “By growing cells this way, we can physically sever the axon component of cells in order to study pre- and post- synaptic parts separately.”
Metz’ work with the slides printed at Idea-2-Product will help pharmacists and medical professionals better understand pain medication, and how it affects the body. The ability to grow and operate on a single nerve on the new stamps will further not only her studies, but the medical world as a whole.