3-D laser printing benefits cancer research

by Gene Stowe

3d Flowers 300

In the basement of Galvin Life Sciences Center, Matthew Leevy’s fabrication laboratory uses the latest in 3-D printing and laser cutting to help campus researchers in their quest for scientific knowledge. Leevy also uses the equipment to produce beauty and goodness – crystal flowers that enshrine Notre Dame landmarks and, now manufactured commercially, raise money to benefit cancer research.

Leevy, who is also a research associate professor and director of biological imaging within the Notre Dame Integrated Imaging Facility, started Flourish3D to produce and market the flowers last year after students gathered specimens near the “Word of Life” mural (aka Touchdown Jesus) and Notre Dame Stadium to practice their CT scanning. While the imaging technology is traditionally used for noninvasive imaging of lab mice, rats and rabbits, the digital images of flowers were so dazzling that the group decided to 3-D engrave them into crystals.

One of the students mentioned that cancer patients, who can’t enjoy real flowers because their immune systems are compromised from chemotherapy, would especially like the replicas. The idea blossomed in the startup company, a social entrepreneurship venture headquartered in Innovation Park and led by Aislinn Betts, an undergraduate who was part of Leevy’s group. Others involved in the original project were Breelyn Betts, Aislinn’s sister who was in high school; undergraduate Christine Craig; Sarah Chapman, assistant director of the Integrated Imaging Facility; and Tiffanie Stewart, a research scientist at the Notre Dame Center for Nano Science and Technology.

Handpicked flowers are CT scanned, 3-D rendered and laser etched within ultra-pure glass. Varieties so far are Cone Flowers for a Cure, Love Thee Canna Lily, Our Lady Geraniums, and the Onward to Victory Rose. Trademark rights to these works are the subject of a license with Notre Dame’s Office of Technology Transfer. They are manufactured by a U.S. company and sold online and in local floral and gift shops, with profits going to the Harper Cancer Research Institute. “These are products that we make with cancer patients in mind, although we think the general public will also derive enjoyment from these flowers in crystal,” said Leevy, who also works with Harper and the ESTEEM program.

The company expects to expand the selection when more flowers bloom in the spring and hopes to reach a wider market, especially cancer hospitals in other cities. “We intend to expand to have a catalog of flowers from landmark sites across our campus,” Leevy says. “We are a core of investigators specializing in scientific research and image analysis technologies. We have expanded our efforts in order to give back to the research community and serve the public at large. It truly aligns with the Notre Dame mission to be a force for good in the world.”

The fabrication laboratory, including staff, postdoctoral associates and undergraduates conducts research at the interface of 3-D printing technology and biomedical imaging, creating anatomical models derived from patient data and developing animal anesthesia delivery devices. Tony Van Avermaete, a design and fabrication specialist, is operations manager of the facility, which includes three CAD workstations, a laser cutter and the most advanced 3-D printer on campus. It offers fabrication of a finished design, consultation on designs in process, and comprehensive design and fabrication based on a back-of-the-napkin sketches. The service is set up within CORES for access to all faculty, staff and students on campus.

Leevy’s lab has made more than a dozen patent submissions in the past three years that are the basis for three startup companies. In Vivo Concepts LLC develops novel anesthesia delivery products to enhance small animal imaging in biomedical research, designed to improve animal handling and technician safety; Biomedical Constructs LLC, which markets anatomical models; and Benefactory Manufacturing and Design, which produces exclusively licensed collegiate goods used by Notre Dame’s development office to thank donors, in addition to Flourish3D.