Dental School Uses 3-D Printers to Produce COVID-19 Testing Swabs

Dentistry Today


After a request from the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the University of Louisville (UofL) School of Dentistry is teaming with other departments on campus to use their 3-D printers to produce swabs made of a pliable resin material for COVID-19 testing. 

“This effort adds to the list of our responses during the pandemic, including 3-D printed face shields, respirators, and ventilators being manufactured through the expertise of our institute,” said Ed Tackett, director of workforce development at UofL’s Additive Manufacturing Institute of Science & Technology (AMIST). 

“We hope our work will provide the necessary tools for Kentucky as well as our local healthcare facilities,” said Tackett. 

The School of Dentistry operates a 3-D print lab used in prosthodontic fabrication of dental implants, crowns, and even jawbones.

Gerald “Jerry” T. Grant, DMD, MS, interim assistant dean of advanced technologies and innovation at the School of Dentistry and associate director at AMIST, collaborated with business partners EnvisionTEC a resin to meet the material requirements for the swab and NewPro3D to help develop a faster printing time.

Grant’s goal is to print 385 swabs in less than an hour and then to make the manufacturing processes available to companies within the state for large-scale production.

According to the school, Grant brings a wealth of knowledge from his military experience, where he developed the 3-D Medical Applications Center at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, providing support to medical and dental commands in digital design and 3-D printing in patient custom reconstruction and devices.

Grant compares the urgent need for items like face shields and swabs to the issues he faced in the military.

“The number of injuries could not be addressed with the conventional methods of fabrication and we had to develop a digital solution to design and eventually a direct printing solution to fabricate,” Grant said. 

“3-D printing can provide a unique opportunity to address urgent needs. This is the reason I came to UofL to work with teams of engineers, physicians, dentists, artists, and others to address situations much like we have now,” said Grant, adding that prosthodontic residents have been significant contributors to the project’s success. 

Justin Gillham, a JB Speed School of Engineering undergraduate mechanical engineering student and member of the AMIST co-op, worked closely with Tackett and Grant on the design.

“Once I had a design complete, I sent it to Ed Tackett and Dr. Grant to print. With their feedback, I could change my design within minutes and have a new swab ready to be tested. In just a few days, we went through many designs that we could then test and change almost immediately,” Gillham said.

George Pantalos, PhD, a professor in the Department of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery and in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, sterilized and tested the swabs at the UofL Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, ensuring they could absorb enough solution material to be viable. 

Bioengineering students Sienna Shacklette and Clara Jones are working under Pantalos to assemble COVID-19 test kits. Last week, they compiled more than 700 kits, including biohazard specimen bags, labels, sample vials filled with viral transport media, and commercially available swabs that are in short supply. The kits immediately were sent throughout Kentucky to test individuals for COVID-19.

Shacklette and Jones also have prepared test kits with 3-D printed swabs that will be used in a validation clinical trial to be conducted in collaboration with Forest Arnold, DO, MSc, associate professor, Division of Infectious Diseases, and UofL Health-UofL Hospital epidemiologist.

“Although we are limited by the number of swabs available, we are not limited by the enthusiastic effort or our students,” said Pantalos.

Grant said he is amazed at the responsiveness of everyone involved in the project.

“We have been able to move a project in just over a week to possible patient trials, something that would normally have been a much longer process. The development of this swab will benefit the people of Kentucky as the supply access to commercial swabs remains inadequate, and a solution to allow for more timely testing becomes imperative,” Grant said.

Clinical trials of the 3-D printed swabs are expected to begin the end of this week. With favorable results, it is anticipated they will be ready for use widely as early as the beginning of May.

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