The National Institutes of Health has joined the Maker movement with the launch of its 3D Print Exchange, a website that allows users to download, edit and share models of anatomy, bacteria and lab equipment. The goal is to provide a creative commons where people from all walks of life can advance medical research.

For years, the NIH has been using 3D printing to plan medical procedures, study lethal viruses, repair lab apparatus and prototype new equipment. "It's a potential game changer for medical research," says NIH Director Francis Collins. "We have seen an incredible return on investment; pennies' worth of plastic have helped investigators address important scientific questions while saving time and money." The ability to design and print tangible models of pathogens, for example, can give researchers a fresh perspective on the diseases they study and open new lines of investigation.

The NIH Goes DIY

One day, NIH computational biology chief Darell Hurt had an idea. "I was able to figure out a way to easily make 3D printable molecules, but it took me a while to do it and it required the computer expertise that not everyone has," he recalls. "So I said, why not make it into something everyone can do?"


And thus began the NIH's foray into DIY medical modeling. A collection of video tutorials on the 3D Print Exchange spans the range from the basic (how to import a file into Blender open source modeling software) to the somewhat more advanced (how to mutate organic compounds). And there are tools that convert scientific and clinical data into ready-to-print files. A growing library of downloadable models, provided by the NIH and submitted by the public, is searchable by keywords, category (anatomical, proteins, bacteria, custom labware, etc.) and building material (powder, resin).

The models on the site vary drastically in complexity, based in part on the potential users, from teachers and students to surgeons and pharmaceutical researchers. Among the current available selections: a frog dissection kit, the base of a cervical spine, a bust of a Macaque, the influenza virus, a microscope, a DNA playset and a "three-dimensional structure of the toxin-delivery particle antifeeding prophage of Serratia entomophila."


Although a lot of research is already conducted using computer models and algorithms, Hurt is among those who argue that a hands-on approach with physical models can often spark insights.

"You use the 3D printer to create the complicated geometry of a drug binding site," says Hurt. "Then when you print out that drug binding site in 3D, you can use commercial chemistry kits — used by students for decades — with little sticks and balls and you put together your potential drugs, and then you manually fit them in."

The print exchange encourages openness and offers a range of Creative Commons licenses. But that also inevitably introduces limitations. Biopharma companies, for instance, will likely be reluctant to upload 3D models that they've developed to a third-party site.

Still, Hurt believes that the open exchange approach, which is accessible to anyone, can become an online laboratory for innovation. "We want this to be a place where people from all different walks of life can come together and download and share [files]," Hurt says. "Who knows what some kid somewhere might come up with in using some of the 3D-modeling software, and then share that model out, and someone half a world away may learn something."