I have always been quite fascinated with 3D printing technology since its advent in the 1980s thanks to Charles Hull, an American engineer.
For the uninitiated, there are several dozens of 3D printing processes in the market which vary in terms of technology, speed, materials, but all of them are based on the fundamental principle of printing ink not on a flat substrate, but in 3-dimensions.
Guided by a computer-aided design (CAD) file, the print occurs in successive layers – one atop the other – where the ink is substrate and substance all rolled into one. To be completely accurate, the “ink” is an acrylic liquid that becomes solid when exposed to UV light typically from a laser beam.
While 3D printing technology has been applied in the manufacturing sector for decades now, it has only started gaining ground and attention in the medical space of late.
The potential applications (and benefits) of 3D printing in this field are vast and this technology is expected to revolutionize healthcare. Here are some examples:
1. Body parts / Prosthetics
3D printing has enjoyed the most success in this category given the level of customization these tailor-made parts can offer to each and every individual patient.
The most common body parts that are being printed via 3D are for hip and knee replacement surgeries. ‘New’ knee joints – mimicking bone and cartilage – are being printed with nylon, and such knee replacement surgeries are already considered a common occurrence at prestigious medical facilities such as the Mayo Clinic.
2. Medical devices
Relatively non-intrusive medical devices such as hearing aids and most dental implants have already been printed via 3D technology for some time now.
These have always been customized to the user but the difference here is how scanning, modeling and printing of say, a hearing aid, takes less than a day compared to the traditional method of casting a handmade mold of the inner ear which would have taken more than a week.
While most of 3D printing technology has been applied to external-based medical devices, it is increasingly making inroads to the more delicate internal system as well.
The first time 3D printing saved a life was in May 2013 – by the medical experts at the University of Michigan. They started by taking a CT scan of the baby’s chest, converted that into a 3D virtual map of his altered airways and thereafter designed and printed a customized splint – made of biocompatible material - to hold the weakened section of his airways open.
Three weeks later, the baby was disconnected from the ventilator and discharged. Here’s the video that chronicles this medical miracle:
3. Tissue Engineering
Yet the biggest leap of 3D printing still lies ahead – that of engineering live tissue or organs such as livers and kidneys in the lab - so that transplant patients need not search or wait endlessly for a compatible donor. In addition, being created of the patient’s genetic material, such engineered implants would run a lower risk of rejection.
While the recent developments in bio-fabrication printers such as BioBots (that can print ink made of live cells) points a ray of hope in the direction of the holy grail, biologists are still trying to understand cell interactions in order to create 3D tissues and organs, and only until then can the equally daunting task of recreating or mapping these geometries occur.
The future of 3D printing in the healthcare sector is definitely burning brighter than ever before. Some upcoming trends I foresee include applying the Quantified Self concept and integrating 3D-printed components with digital technology.
For example, including sensors in the newly printed knee joints would allow the measurement of the pressure on and wear & tear of the new knee. This can also be connected wirelessly to an app or platform to allow the user to constantly monitor his new knee and regulate his activity level as a result.
3D printing is also expected to play a huge role in personalized medicine, and could lead to a change in the current healthcare delivery system.
Take for instance the pharmacy setting: In the future, the manufacturing and distribution of drugs by pharmaceutical companies could be replaced by the emailing of databases of medical formulations to pharmacies for on-demand drug printing.
This would lead to greater cost effectiveness for all parties.
Billions of dollars are squandered each year on failed drug development. Should the abovementioned holy grail be reached, then, readily available bio-printed tissues could be the perfect guinea pigs for the testing of efficacy and side effects of new experimental drugs.
Given the exciting potential and immense benefits that 3D printing technology is bringing to the healthcare field, if its various regulatory boundaries can be properly defined and respected, then the road ahead can only be revolutionary.