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A team led by the University of Adelaide and the University of Stuttgart has used 3D micro-printing to create the world’s smallest imaging device, capable of going inside blood vessels.
The camera-like device is made from an optical fibre the size of a human hair and has a tiny lens 3D printed onto its side. It is capable of travelling down blood vessels and capturing high-quality 3D images at microscopic resolutions. It is hoped that the technology can be used to help us better understand the causes of heart attacks and heart disease progression, which could lead to improved treatments and prevention.
To create the minuscule imaging device, the team took a fine optical fibre with a diameter of less than half a millimetre (including its protective sheath). They then used a 3D micro-printing technique to print a minuscule side-facing lens into it. The lens itself is so small that it cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Ultrathin 3D printed endoscope imaging an artery - photo by Simon Thiele and Jiawen Li, University of Adelaide
Ultrathin 3D printed endoscope design, University of Adelaide
The tiny imaging device acts as a flexible probe. It connects to an optical coherence tomography (OCT) scanner, a medical imaging technique that is often used to evaluate disorders of the optic nerve.
While endoscopes are nothing new, imaging devices this tiny are. This ultra-thin probe can be rotated and slowly pulled backwards through blood vessels to build up a 3D map of its surroundings. This capability makes them potentially very valuable for understanding heart disease and the accumulation of plaques that cause it.
The researchers say the tiny imaging device could pave the way for new scanning options in hard-to-reach places like the cochlea of the ear and potentially even parts of the nervous system.
You can find out more about this ground-breaking imaging device by reading the associated study in the journal Light Science & Applications.