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The battle in your body (and a 3D model to help explain)

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A pathogen, or a disease-causing agent, enters your body. Recognizing the invader, your immune system works to fight it off, deploying antibodies. Like a key fits a particular lock, these antibodies attach to antigens, which are part of the invader; the specific part of the antigen that binds to the antibody is known as an epitope.

If this sounds a bit complicated to you, you’re not alone. Dr. Erica Suchman, Professor of Microbiology and University Distinguished Teaching Scholar, noticed her students were having a hard time understanding antibody interactions. She saw an opportunity for 3D printing to help.

One particular concept that is difficult to represent with two-dimensional drawings is how antibodies gain specificity for epitopes, which is the process by which antibodies help the immune system distinguish its own cells from invaders. To better illustrate this concept, Dr. Suchman envisioned 3D models that would allow students to create different antibodies and determine if they can bind to an epitope.

Models like this epitope have greatly enhanced student learning in the classroom.

Models like this epitope have greatly enhanced student learning in the classroom.

Armed with Dr. Suchman’s idea, undergraduate honors students Steven Denham and Dana Shatila came up with a plan for how to create the 3D models and sought the help of I2P. After several iterations, the models are in their final, functional stage, and Dr. Suchman sees applications for the models to demonstrate a variety of other biological concepts in fields like virology, bacteriology, and immunology.

“So far the students love them,” Suchman said. As supplements to lectures, notes, and textbooks, the 3D models demonstrate the idea that one antigen can have many epitopes and also allow for trial and error experiential learning, enhancing students’ tactile experience.

With this hands-on practice in immunology, students are given a new perspective on an important concept thanks in part to 3D printing – bringing the microscopic and abstract to the tangible and touchable.