Very few infectious diseases in recent years have commanded the kind of attention and concern that Zika Virus has. Although Zika outbreaks have been reported in Africa, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world since the 1952, recent announcement by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirming its link with microcephaly has forced everyone to sit up and take notice. The CDC estimates that the current pandemic is widespread with at least 50 countries reporting active Zika transmissions at this time. Most people with Zika virus infection will not have any symptoms though some may experience mild fever, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, and headaches.
The virus is primarily transmitted by the Aedes mosquito. However, pregnant women may pass the infection to their babies, which may lead to microcephaly, a neurological condition associated with an abnormally small brain in the infant. The condition can lead to birth defects ranging from hearing loss to poor vision and impaired growth. Prompt diagnosis and treatment of Zika virus infections in pregnant women can, nonetheless, lower the risk of microcephaly to a great extent. Researchers have, therefore, put in a lot of time, money and effort to find a solution, and as always, three-dimensional (3D) medical printing and bioprinting technologies are leading the way.
Understanding the Disease
To begin with, 3D printing has played a crucial role in conclusively establishing the link between Zika virus and microcephaly. Researchers at John Hopkins Medicine used 3D bioprinting technology to develop realistic models of brain that revealed how the virus infects specialized stem cells in the outer layers of the organ, also known as the cortex. The bioprinted models allowed researchers to study the effects of Zika exposure on fetal brain during different stages of pregnancy. The models are also helping the scientists with drug testing, which is the obvious next stage of their research.
Zika Test Kit
Engineers at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, under the leadership of Professor Changchun Liu and Professor Haim Bau, have developed a simple genetic testing device that helps detect Zika virus in saliva samples. It consists of an embedded genetic assay chip that identifies the virus and turns the color of the paper in the 3D printed lid of the device to blue. This can prompt healthcare professionals to send the patient for further testing and to initiate treatment. Unlike other Zika testing techniques, this screening method does not require complex lab equipment. Each device costs about $2, making Zika screening accessible to pregnant women from the poorest parts of the world.
The scientists at the Autonomous University of the State of Morelos (UAEM) in Mexico are relying on the additive printing technology to create a microvalve that may help treat microcephaly in infants. The valve reduces the impact of the neurological disease and slows its progression by draining out excessive cerebrospinal fluid associated with this disorder. It can be inserted into the infant brain through a small incision to relieve fluid pressure and provide space for normal development. Researchers estimate the device will be available for patient use by 2017. These examples clearly demonstrate the impact of 3D printing on every aspect of the fight against Zika virus from diagnosing the disease to treating it. The results have been extremely promising, and both researchers and healthcare professionals are immensely hopeful that additive printing technology will help them overcome the infection quickly and effectively.