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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

'Cool' Factor a Bonus

Explore with NIH's 3-D Print Exchange

McCarthy holds a model brain.

Dr. Meghan McCarthy holds a model brain produced by the 3-D Print Exchange.

Photo: Carla Garnett

In 2007, Dr. Darrell Hurt, head of the computational biology section in NIAID’s Bioinformatics and Computational Biosciences Branch (BCBB), began experimenting with 3-D printing for molecular visualization. He started by taking raw molecular structure data and putting it in a 3-D-printable form.

“There’s so much more you can learn when you have it in your hands, rather than looking at it on a 2-D screen or even with 3-D glasses,” explains Dr. Meghan McCarthy, program lead for BCBB’s 3-D Printing and Biovisualization Program.

BCBB provides data analysis consultation and custom software development services to NIAID researchers and wanted to make 3-D printing more accessible to the public. As a solution, the branch created the NIH 3-D Print Exchange (, an online resource where people can find models and share their own models as well as web tools that eliminate skills barriers.

“We developed automated tools that are free. Anyone around the globe can use them,” says McCarthy, who manages the exchange under BCBB’s larger program for 3-D printing and biovisualization.

The exchange is owned and maintained by NIAID, but was initially created in partnership with NICHD and the National Library of Medicine with support from the 2013 HHS Ignite and 2014 HHS Ventures initiatives. Team members were recognized with an HHS Innovates award in 2015.

BCBB has processed more than 100 scientific 3-D printing requests over the last 10 years, reports BCBB Scientific Visualization Specialist James Tyrwhitt-Drake. “However, each request may include multiple different models or copies of the same model,” he says.

A colorful variety of 3-D models

Other models designed and printed by James Tyrwhitt-Drake for the exchange’s collection include (clockwise, from top right) Zika virus capsid, bacteriophage, Cas9 from CRISPR, papilloma virus, nucleosome and HIV capsid.

“Color printing of scientific models requires a considerable amount of preparation and processing time, so we primarily limit the service to requests from NIAID staff that have scientific utility. Production is limited by the physical complexity of the model, consumption of materials and occasionally troubleshooting mechanical or software issues with the printer.”

Over the years, as technology advanced, BCBB’s capabilities and responsibilities expanded to include other 3-D technologies, including virtual and augmented reality.

Tyrwhitt-Drake, along with team member and structural biologist Dr. Phil Cruz, also produces the virtual reality models that allow investigators to walk inside a molecule and have a look around its structure. 

Use of virtual reality has “really taken off, especially in the last year,” McCarthy points out. “Anyone that we’ve ever put into the 3-D goggles—even people who have worked on a particular molecule for 10 or 15 years as part of their career—says they see something different, that they didn’t see before.”

Both 3-D printing and VR are useful applications for learning, sharing and education, as well as research, McCarthy notes. In addition to exploring their work from a unique perspective, researchers also seem to enjoy the “cool” factor.

“Most people think of gaming and entertainment when they think of VR,” McCarthy concludes, “but we really like that we’ve been able to bring this scientific value to it.”

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