3D printing technology is undoubtedly well on its way to going mainstream in the medical world. As previously reported on Bits & Pieces, researchers have already managed to design and print a 3D splint that saved the life of an infant born with severe tracheobronchomalacia – a serious birth defect that causes the airway to collapse. Melbourne scientists also took a big step towards the development of “grow your own” cartilage to treat cancers, osteoarthritis and traumatic injuries using 3D tech, while 3D-printed orthopedic implants were successfully fitted in Peking’s University Third Hospital in Beijing.
A recent WebMD special report has explored the integral role 3D printing will play in transforming the medical field. Most notably, WebMD introduces the Washington University in St. Louis students’ production of a 3D-printed, pink robotic arm for 13-year-old Sydney Kendall. The robotic arm, with its opposable thumb, enables Sydney to grip a baseball, maneuver a mouse and even pick up a paper coffee cup, the article notes. The total cost? $200, a mere fraction of the price of standard prosthetics, which start at $6,000 and can run upward to $50,000 to $70,000.
3D printing is also widely being used for body parts — usually made of plastic or metal — that come in contact with the body but don’t enter the bloodstream. These include teeth, hearing aid shells, and prosthetic limbs. “In the past, a dental crown had to be fabricated in a lab, which takes a few days if not a few weeks and two to three trips to the dentist by the patient,” said Professor Dr. Chuck Zhang of Georgia Institute of Technology. Now a dentist can take a 3D scan of a tooth and print the crown on the spot.
From prosthetics and teeth to living tissue and heart valves, 3D printing is bringing made-to-order, custom solutions into operating rooms and doctors’ offices. According to experts, dozens of hospitals are already experimenting with 3D printers, while researchers continue work on more futuristic applications of the technology. In June, the National Institutes of Health launched a 3D Print Exchange that allows users to share and download files in hopes that it will foster even more research around the next-gen technology.
“3D printing is a potential game-changer for medical research. At NIH, we have seen an incredible return on investment; pennies’ worth of plastic have helped investigators address important scientific questions while saving time and money, ” explained NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins when announcing the exchange.
In addition to metals and plastics, doctors and scientists around the country are loading 3D printers with human cells and printing living tissue in a process called bioprinting. Researchers are seeking to one day print living organ for transplant using a patient’s own cells. Some experts believe this will become a standard medical practice sometime in the 2020s and 2030s, and ultimately revolutionize organ transplants. Patients wouldn’t die waiting on a donor list, and their immune systems wouldn’t reject the organs.
Dr. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest says researchers will use 3D-printed miniature livers to test drug toxicity, and expect the method to be far more accurate than traditional animal and cell testing. As the article notes, bioengineers at Cornell University have already printed ears, while the University of Michigan is also testing the concept. Many labs are currently printing tissue for research and drug testing, and patching damaged organs with strips of human tissue may happen in the near future, explained Stuart Williams, PhD, of the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute at the University of Louisville.
Interested in learning more about the ways in which 3D printing is revolutionizing medicine? Read the entire WebMD article here.