A team of researchers led by the University of Adelaide and the University of Stuttgart has used 3D micro-printing to develop the world’s smallest, flexible scope for looking inside blood vessels. The camera-like imaging device can be inserted into blood vessels to provide high-quality 3D images to help scientists better understand the causes of heart attack and heart disease progression and could lead to improved treatment and prevention.

In a study published in the Light: Science & Applications journal, a multidisciplinary team of researchers and clinicians was able to 3D print a tiny lens on to the end of an optical fiber, the thickness of a human hair. The imaging device is so small that researchers were able to scan inside the blood vessels of mice.

Dr. Jiawen Li, co-author and Heart Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing, University of Adelaide, explained that plaques are a major factor in heart disease. They’re made up of fats, cholesterol, and other substances that build up on vessel walls. “Preclinical and clinical diagnostics increasingly rely on visualizing the structure of the blood vessels to better understand the disease.” She added: “Miniaturized endoscopes, which act like tiny cameras, allow doctors to see how these plaques form and explore new ways to treat them.”

Dr. Simon Thiele, Group Leader, Optical Design and Simulation at the University of Stuttgart, was responsible for fabricating the tiny lens. “Until now, we couldn’t make high quality endoscopes this small,” he said. “Using 3D micro-printing, we are able to print complicated lenses that are too small to see with the naked eye. The entire endoscope, with a protective plastic casing, is less than half a millimeter across.”