Pitt professor develops 3D-printed COVID-19 testing swabs


Pitt’s radiology department in the School of Medicine has developed 3D-printed COVID-19 testing swabs that are already being used successfully on UPMC patients.

Anish GhodadraAnish Ghodadra, assistant professor in radiology and director of UPMC’s 3D printing program, along with April Krivoniak, the 3D program’s biomedical engineer, developed the swab prototype beginning in April. They have since been manufacturing, testing and using the swab with increasing frequency. The pair has done lab and clinical testing, turning a UPMC Montefiore operating room into a clean manufacturing space and creating training materials for swab use.

The swabs consist normally of a flexible plastic wand-like body and a tip formed from tiny plastic fibers. The neck of the swab must be flexible enough to pass through the nasal passage and reach your nasal pharynx, at the back of your throat, which has a high viral load, Ghodadra explains. While this test is famously unpleasant, it remains “the most sensitive and specific way to test for the coronavirus,” he says.

“There really was a worldwide shortage of these swabs,” he adds, and it was important to search for an alternative to the traditional swab sources.

UPMC has had its 3D printing program since 2016 as a way to print images of specific anatomy, from a patient’s organ to a tumor, to help surgeons prepare for individual procedures.

“This is a shift to more traditional manufacturing,” Ghodadra says of the swab effort.

The fibers on a swab are normally made separately and attached to its neck, but Ghodadra and Krivoniak had to devise a one-piece swab. Instead of the tiny fibers, they created a conical tip, with small bristles stiff enough to push through the nasal passage but flexible enough to bend as needed. The aim was to make sure it could collect a sample as accurately as traditional swabs. It took several weeks from design to use to perfect the process, they report.

One batch of swabs takes 20 hours to print — how many are in a batch, the pair won’t say, since the process is patent pending — but enough are being made that they’ve been put into clinical use already.

“Anyone can just buy a printer and print things,” Ghodadra cautions. To do it at a manufacturing level while maintaining quality is paramount for making sure the process is safe and consistent.

Today the focus is on using the 3D swabs only at UPMC facilities. However, he says, they are exploring how its use might be expanded to other institutions.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.

Follow the University Times on Twitter and Facebook.