Ever since the beginning of modern medicine scientists have been trying to figure out a way to look into the human body without cutting it open too much. Nowadays we have highly advanced imaging technologies, but it is not to say that we cannot move even more forward. Scientists from the University of Adelaide and University of Stuttgart have now created the world’s smallest, flexible scope for looking inside blood vessels.

This kind of research involves scientists from different fields. It is important to understand the peculiarities of the cardiovascular system, but also imaging and manufacturing technologies. Scientists this time employed a 3D microprinting technology, which allowed making an unbelievably small device. How small you ask?

Well, this is an endoscope – a small flexible device, designed to look into small tight areas inside of the body. It is essentially a camera and you know that cameras need lenses. Scientists managed to 3D print a tiny lense, which was then connected to the end of an optical fibre, the thickness of a human hair. The resulting device is so small that scientists had no problem looking into the inside of a blood vessels of mice.

This endoscope can be inserted into tiny blood vessels and still provides high quality 3D images. They can then be analysed in high detail, helping scientists to understand the roots of heart disease. Heart disease kills a person every 19 minutes in Australia alone. It is one of the main killers in the human world. Scientists know that in many cases heart disease develops because of the plaques, which are made up of fats, cholesterol and other substances. These plaques build up on the walls of blood vessels, essentially clogging and weakening them.

Dr Jiawen Li, co-author of the study, said: “Miniaturised endoscopes, which act like tiny cameras, allow doctors to see how these plaques form and explore new ways to treat them. Until now, we couldn’t make high quality endoscopes this small”. This small being less than half a millimetre across.

3D microprinting is a 3D printing technology which uses significantly more precise parts and imaging technology to produce very small parts. This is especially important for medicine. Essentially, a 3D microprinter prints in a much higher resolution. In fact, you couldn’t even see that lense that they made just with your naked eye.

If this endoscope reaches a clinical setting, it would allow for highly non-invasive diagnostic procedures. But, of course, it is unlikely that this device will be commercialized anytime soon, because of that 3D printed part. In order to make it for sale, it should be mass produced, which would be difficult now, but maybe will be possible in the near future.

Source: University of Adelaide