From Mouth Models To Nasal Swabs: WNC Team Goes 3D To Help Flatten Coronavirus Curve

May 7, 2020

What happens when a medical student and a dental resident harness 3D technology to help flatten the coronavirus curve in North Carolina?  BPR’s Helen Chickering reports.

Like most dentist offices across North Carolina, The dental clinic at Mountain Area Health Education Center or MAHEC is slower these days, with dental residents limited to treating emergency cases.  But the practice is still busy.

[ 3D printer sound  ]

That’s the sound of a 3D printer, and the one at MAHEC’s Asheville office is working nonstop.

“And that  3D printer is usually used for making surgical guides for implants, mouth models, things like that,” says Natalie Raper,  MAHEC’s dental practice administrator.

“We have repurposed that 3D printer and we have begun producing COVID- 19 testing swabs” 

The repurposed printer idea got rolling when Raper was contacted by UNC medical student Kacey Scott, a  former MAHEC medical librarian. Inspired by a national news story,  Scott was in search of a 3D printer to  make face shield.

“We tried to make a face shield on that printer, but it ended up being too small,” says Scott. “One of the 

UNC medical student Kacey Scott
Credit Sara Christensen

dental residents who's kind of the expert in using the dental printer and I looked up templates for making the test swabs and we printed a batch  - and it worked!”

“I have become more familiar than I ever thought I would be with this   3-D printer,” says Dr. Bryan Halstead, the 3D printer expert and MAHEC dental resident.  Halstead  credits a motivated on-line community for sharing templates and other key information that got their operation up and running.  

“We've sort of created this small network of people who have 3-D printers in Asheville and are interested in contributing to this medical need that we have right now.  It is a team effort and we're all -  all the residents and staff are sort of jumping in on this project. It takes many hands for sure.”

Administrator Natalie Raper says they are hoping to make about 4,000 swabs in 30 days. “And those swabs will be produced in the MAHEC dental health center clinic (sterilized and packaged and the MAHEC dental health center clinic) and then they will be distributed a testing site free of charge specifically for those that serve vulnerable populations in Western North Carolina.

First batch of 3D printed MAHEC test swabs - success!
Credit MAHEC

And while it was not part of their planned education curriculum,  both Halstead and Scott say it’s been an incredible learning experience.

“I think it is maybe too soon to know what the overall impact will be,” says Scott.  “But I  think just having a sense of contributing and supporting the community and being helpful and useful when it's really easy to feel frustrated and futile about our current situation. That's been really a rewarding aspect.”

“I imagine in the next month or so, you’ll see a whole lot more testing,” says Halstead.  “So, I hope that what we're doing  is helpful and helps get the world back to the way things, uh – should be running.”

A 3D team effort spearheaded by a third-year medical student  and a soon to be graduating dental resident who are going above and beyond during this uncertain time to help  North Carolina flatten the coronavirus curve.  I’m Helen Chickering, BPR News.

Footnote to this story.  Kacey Scott didn't give up on that face shield project, she and fellow UNC medical students joined an effort underway at UNC Asheville - which also has a 3D printer dedicated to making test swabs.  Mark Hursty, a lecturer in New Media at UNC Asheville was instrumental in spearheading and coordinating the effort.  A number of organizations have helped support the PPE-making missions with funding.