SLM used to create self-expanding stents for treating blocked arteries

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A group of Australian researchers has used selective laser melting to produce tailor-made self-expanding nitinol stents, critical biomedical devices used to treat narrow or blocked arteries.

Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD) is a condition in which fatty deposits collect and reduce blood flow in arteries outside the heart – most commonly in the legs. People with PAD typically experience pain when walking and in severe cases may develop gangrene.

Until now, surgeons have been restricted to accessing 'off-the-shelf' stents for operations when treating PAD. 

Now however, thanks to the work of the researchers from CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, in partnership with Wollongong-based Medical Innovation Hub, these stents can be 3D printed for specific patients with high geometric accuracy.

The ability to 3D print stents is expected to improve sizing options, preserve essential anatomy, and enable diameters and shapes to suit individual patient requirements. The process could also allow for individual stents to be made on-site, under the surgeon's direction, reducing inventory and saving money.

The stents are made using nitinol, a shape-memory alloy with superelastic properties.

‘It's a tricky alloy to work with in 3D printing conditions, due to its sensitivity to stress and heat,’ said Dr Sri Lathabai, CSIRO principal research scientist. ‘We had to select the right 3D printing parameters to get the ultra-fine mesh structure needed for an endovascular stent, as well as carefully manage heat treatments so the finished product can expand as needed, once inside the body.’

Chief executive of Medical Innovation Hub Dr Arthur Stanton is a vascular surgeon who has treated thousands of patients and saw a need for an improved treatment. ‘Currently, surgeons use off-the-shelf stents, and although they come in various shapes and sizes, overall there are limitations to the range of stents available,’ he said. ‘We believe our new 3D-printed self-expanding nitinol stents offer an improved patient experience through better fitting devices, better conformity to blood vessels and improved recovery times.

‘There is also the opportunity for the technology to be used for mass production of stents, potentially at lower cost.’

A new company, Flex Memory Ventures, has been established to drive commercialisation of the technology.

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