E-Health & Technology Tuesday January 26, 2016

What Are 3D Printers Doing For Healthcare?

A few years ago, the thought of printing a useable body part was a far-off dream, but now it's a reality that's improving lives.

What Is 3D Printing?

A 3D printer can print a layer-by-layer three-dimensional object.

Medicine is not the only sector interested in 3D printing, either. NASA has 3D printed a model of a binary star system to understand its solar winds, and a father from San Diego has printed 3D fractions to help his blind daughter understand how they work.

Although 3D printers can cost upwards of $200,000, once bought it can be used repeatedly to print customised objects. No unique moulds are needed, it's quick, and now the technology is in place, it's simple to use.

What Has Been Printed In 3D?

Anything that can be designed on a computer can be printed. Actual living tissue is currently beyond scientists, but medical items printed so far include:

  • Bones - such as jaws, hands, feet
  • Airway supports
  • New formulas for medication which make them easier to take
  • Practice models of body parts for use before tricky surgery
  • Facial parts such as noses and ears as these don't require intricate blood networks
  • Animals benefit too. Buttercup the duck was born with a deformed foot, but got a new, printed one!

What Materials Are Used?

3D printing had been limited to plastics prosthetics, but now there is titanium powder which can be used to create custom implants for use in surgery.

New materials are on the way too. The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research on Long Island is working to create a new substance specifically for 3D printers. The new material is a composite mix of calcium carbonate and organic plastic, with the end result mimicking bone. They intend to call this substance MakerBot.

It's difficult to create new medical substances as currently any new material must be approved by the FDA. One of their requirements is that the material is easily sterilised which throws up difficulties.

How Does 3D Printing Work?

Imagine your home device busily printing a photograph in 2D. A 3D printer works the same way except it prints out a complete 3D model of your photograph. Printable objects are designed on a computer program using photographs, x-rays, CT scans and MRIs but instead of utilising ink, a 3D printer utilises building material to print the object.

Using titanium powder, a child's heart for surgeons to practise tricky procedures on, can take 4-12 hours to print.

What Does It Mean For The Future?

3D printing is huge for the future. Here are three major reasons why.

Advanced Learning

In Toronto, the Sick Kids Hospital is training cardiac surgeons from across the globe using 3D printed hearts, which are exact copies of congenital heart abnormalities found in children. Trainee surgeons from Norway, Oman, Mexico and the US have attended to watch experienced surgeons reproduce the complex operations used to save children's lives.

woman using 3d printer

Dr. Juan Roberto Contreras of Temuco, Chile, who doesn't operate on children although he wants to in the future, has attended the Toronto master class. He says ' When we were students we didn't have the opportunity for making this operation in my country.'

Baghdad surgeon Dr Ala Alwan who has also attended the class said 'We don't have such models in our country, and we don't do such procedures because they are very complicated."

3D printers can also support current surgery. Dr Smith, paediatric neurosurgeon at Boston Children's hospital, prints the surgical procedure in 3D to help him understand the problem and solve it. MRI and x-rays have served this function in 2D, but Smith says 3D is more helpful because 'You see these spatial relations and depth of field that aren't possible on-screen.'

Personalised Medicine

A specifically printed piece of bone to fit your body means surgery and recovery time is quicker. Every body structure is different and requires a different shaped implant, or a certain type of material to avoid allergy and rejection. 3D printing makes this a reality.

But how long before body organs will be printed? Harvard scientists have created a method to print tissue structure with hollow channels - a blood vessel network. They believe this is the first step towards printing living tissues such as cartilage.

Professor Gordon Wallace, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science at the University of Wollongong (UOW), believes that over the next few years the capability to print cartilage, islet cells and stem cells will be within our grasp.

Cost Saving

Surgeons at NYU Longone in the States use 3D printing to plan an operation which can result in better outcomes, not least financially. Hours saved in the operating theatre, a better fit for patients and quicker recovery time can save thousands - up to $20,000 - $30,000 for jaw reconstruction alone. Dr Levine, chief of microsurgery at NYU Langone, predicts 3D printers will be common in a hospital setting within a decade.

Good news then that the cost is beginning to fall. In 2015 Biobots released a bio-printer for $10,000. That's a far cry from the previous $200,000 price tag.

So don't be surprised if in the near future you are offered 3D printing for a health procedure and perhaps, before long, people won't die waiting for organ transplants. That's a bright future - and it's getting closer.


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