The evolution of 3D printing, or additive fabrication, is changing the future landscape of health care. This increasingly popular technology is revolutionizing the way that we are able to care for people in dramatic ways. The main advantage that 3D printing provides is the ability to produce customized, personalized medical solutions ranging from prosthetics to human skin to tailor-made joints and bones.
There are still many obstacles in being able to print 3D organs, but in 2014, printed body parts made up sales in excess of $500 million. 3D printing for use in medical applications is still under heavy research as fabricators look to determine if the technology can be used to recreate complex internal organs. Currently, researchers have been able to create partial tissue samples that are stable for testing.
Already, 3D printing has changed the way physicians can better personalize health care. Let’s look at 6 ways this technology is helping to change the future of the health care industry.
Many people know of the use of 3D printing technologies to create prosthetics. The cost of a traditional hand prosthetic can cost as much as $10,000. This cost can deter families from getting them, especially for children who will outgrow them quickly. 3D printing provides a much more viable and cost-efficient prosthetic that can be produced for just a few hundred dollars.
2. Human skin for testing
L’Oreal makes cosmetics, hair color, and…skin. They create their patented skin, Episkin, in a lab to be able to test their products without using people or animals. Now the cosmetic company has partnered with Organovo, a San Diego bioprinting company to print skin. This will allow them to produce skin at a faster rate than their current method: growing skin from incubated skin cell donated by surgery patients. It also opens up opportunities for medical applications in burn care.
3. Functional ‘bionic’ ears
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but using human cells and silver nanoparticles, researchers at Princeton University have been able to create a functional ear that ‘hears’ radio frequencies outside of average human capability. Using 3D printing of cells and nanoparticles, they were able to combine cell culture with a small coil and antenna with cartilage to create what they call a bionic ear.
Scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have demonstrated that they can 3D print functional ear, bone, and muscle structures. Not only have they printed these structures, they also implanted them on mice to show that these ears keep their structure, become vascularized, and induce nerve formation. This means that the bio-ink printed structures are able to remain alive and support cell and tissue growth.
4. Mending broken hearts
At the St. Thomas Hospital in London, a 2-year-old girl that was born with a rare heart defect has been the beneficiary of 3D printing technologies. Using these printing innovations, doctors were able to get a custom-made implant to patch a hole between her ventricles.
5. Facial reconstruction
At the John C. Lincoln Medical Center in Phoenix, Dr. Pablo Prichard was able to reconstruct a teen’s face. A vehicle struck the teen and left him with facial bones that were absolutely crushed. Generally, metal plates and screws are used to reconstruct the face, but the bones did not have enough blood supply, and effectively ‘died away’ the doctor said. Because of that, Dr. Prichard decided to develop a 3D printed facial implant to reconstruct the teen’s face. The advancements in 3D printing technology allowed this teen to have his face fully reconstructed to be able to look like any other 18-year-old high school senior.
6. The first 3D printed vertebrae
In December 2015, a 60-year-old man suffering from a rare condition called Chordoma cancer received the world’s first 3D printed vertebrae. Chordoma cancer is extremely rare making up 0.2 percent of all cancers. The malignant tumors can occur in the bones of the spine and the base of the skull.
The patient had a tumor in the top two vertebrae in his neck. These vertebrae play a role in the swiveling and tilting of the head. As the tumor grew larger, so did the chance that the patient would become a quadriplegic due to the tumor severing his spine. With a combined effort from Dr. Ralph Mobbs, an Australian neurosurgeon, and Anatomics, an Australian medical device manufacturer, they were able to create an exact replica of the two vertebrae.
After a 15-hour surgery, which is essentially included removing and reattaching the patient’s head from his neck, the patient now has full motion in his head and neck and is tumor free.