Invented in the 1980s, 3D printing is providing new ways in which we can create prototypes, toys, and models at a much lower price than ever before. However, this technology is making its most revolutionary impact on the field of medicine.
With 3D printing, researchers are developing new treatment options for patients who experience a variety of conditions ranging from injuries to organ failure. These advancements have the potential to change the way doctors and surgeons practice medicine.
Here are five ways 3D printing is shaping an innovative future for healthcare:
Since its invention in 2010, 3D skin-cell printing has taken great steps toward becoming a widely used medical technology. Under the leadership of Professor James Yoo, a team of researchers at the Institute of Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University designed a 3D bioprinter to help patients recover from burn wounds. The team received inspiration for the project after hearing of the burn injuries that numerous soldiers sustain while fighting overseas. In fact, the US Department of Defense has funded their ongoing research.
This partnership has helped the researchers create a portable printer that utilizes laser scanners to detect the size and depth of a burn. After calculating how many layers and which types of skin are required to patch the wound, the bioprinter then relays skin cells over the affected area to aid skin regeneration. As of mid-2014, the technology was ready for use in the military’s clinical trials. It is only a matter of time until ordinary citizens can also obtain the benefits of the bioprinting system.
3D printing is helping patients acquire affordable and effective prostheses. Using this system, prosthetists are able to convert a patient’s X-rays, CT, or MRI scans of healthy limbs into a 3D file. This allows them to not only customize prosthetic limbs for each patient, but also to provide highly accurate and comfortable devices. Though prosthesis creation is typically a time-consuming process, the 3D printing technology is able to create these devices in as little as one day.
Researchers and doctors have already utilized 3D printing to help patients across the globe. In one collaborative effort, Autodesk Canada, CBM Canada, and a research team from the University of Toronto created numerous prosthetic sockets to benefit patients in Uganda. Another project aims to minimize the overall cost of acquiring and managing prostheses. Called the Dextrus hand, it uses durable ABS plastic, which not only allows for the easy installation of broken parts, but it also dramatically lowers the cost of replacing them. Firms such as e-NABLE and Robohand are creating similar user-friendly prostheses.
Like with prostheses, 3D printing is already being used to provide alternatives for patients who require cranial replacements. In one such case, Chinese doctors employed a 3D printed titanium mesh device to repair the skull of Hu, a farmer who damaged the left side of his skull in a construction accident. Using 3D printing, the doctors were able to create a custom-made implant to match the precise dimensions of the affected bone. During a three-hour surgery in late 2014, surgeons used the mesh to create a shape similar to that of Hu’s original cranium. Not only was Hu’s body more inclined to accept this material, but it was also able to heal much more efficiently, thus giving Hu’s damaged brain cells a better chance to recover.
In a similar case, doctors at the University Medical Center in Utrecht, Netherlands, completed the world’s first full skull transplant in 2014. Using a 3D-printed cranial piece, they were able to replace the cranium of a woman who had a bone-thickening condition. This technology could potentially benefit numerous other patients who have been in accidents or require cranial replacement due to brain swelling.
Functional human organs
Hundreds of thousands of patients await organ transplants in the United States each year. Many of these applicants find it difficult to locate a donor whose tissue matches their own. Once they find a suitable donor, they must then incur staggering surgical and post-operative costs to reduce the risk of organ rejection As a result, researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have spearheaded efforts to create functioning human organs via 3D printing technology.
The Institute’s director, Anthony Atala, utilized human cells to engineer a bladder for a patient whose existing organ did not function properly. Since the success of the procedure, Atala has focused his work on creating more intricate organs, such as the liver and kidney. 3D organ printing can also build functioning human hearts and valves. However, these 3D-printed organs still need to acquire a blood supply before they will be ready for clinical trials. At the same time, 3D printing technology has helped researchers create functioning organ cells for use in medical testing.
Artificial blood vessel creation
Without the presence of vessels to carry blood throughout the body, organs would not be able to function. A team of researchers at Harvard University have created a 3D vessel printing system to fulfil this need. Using a specially-designed machine, the team was able to successfully print artificial blood vessels in 3D tracks made of an “ink” that consisted of a Jell-O-like substance and skin cells. This ink maintains the consistency of gelatin at room temperature but enters a liquid state when cooled to a certain temperature.
This technique allowed the researchers to hollow out the tracks they printed by chilling the vessels and vacuuming the liquefied ink from the center. The resulting 3D structure was able to accommodate the same cells that line human blood vessels. Doctors are not yet able to implement this technology to replace the vessels in patients, but its development marks an important step towards one day creating fully functioning organs.