3D Printing and Healthcare

How 3D printing is transforming the world of medicine.

While other industries may still be trying to figure out practical uses for 3D printing, the healthcare industry is already using it to save and improve lives. From implants and prosthetics to home-grown drugs and human organs, the 3D printing revolution has begun in the medical world.

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3D printing saves a life

Craniofacial surgery
Craniofacial surgery

At the Inside 3D Printing conference earlier this month, Dr. Amir Dorafshar, co-director of the Facial Transplantation Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine, highlighted some of the groundbreaking possibilities that 3D printing has created for surgeons. Particularly for cranial and facial surgery for patients who have suffered severe head trauma or infants born with abnormalities, 3D printing allows surgeons to create implants design specifically for each patient.

3D-printed skull
Credit: GizMag
3D-printed skull

For example, a woman in Holland was given a 3D-printed skull to resolve a condition that caused her skull to grow thicker, which put pressure on the brain and resulted in loss of vision and impaired motor skills. The procedure is believed to be the first of its kind, and the surgeons behind it consider 3D printing a much safer and more effective solution than the cement or bone implants used for cranial procedures in the past.

Helping a baby breathe
Credit: New England Journal of Medicine
Helping a baby breathe

Last May, doctors and researchers at the University of Michigan designed and printed an artificial splint to help an Ohio infant whose airway couldn’t support itself breathe without a breathing machine. The project was a success, allowing the boy to breathe on his own without an issue, and eventually without the assistance of a breathing tube.

Human tissue
Credit: YouTube.com
Human tissue

3D printing of human tissue reached a breakthrough in 2009, when a company called Organovo created a device that sets cells into a 3D design scaffold. Just this year, Organovo took the next step in the process, introducing functional printers that can organize cells into custom-designed objects. So far, Organovo’s “bioprinters” have been used to build blood vessels, but it has the potential to expand drug testing on human organs and make organ transplants possible in remote areas with limited medical resources. Organovo has said that it hopes to 3D print a functional human liver by the end of 2014.

Human kidney
Credit: YouTube.com
Human kidney

In a 2011 TED Talk, Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, outlined a method that uses 3D printing to help create kidneys for patients in need of a transplant.

Pelvis implant for cancer patient
Pelvis implant for cancer patient

After a cancer patient in his 60s needed to remove half of his pelvis as a result of a rare form of bone cancer, doctors turned to 3D printing to develop a functional implant, the Telegraph reported. The condition had spread so quickly in the patient’s pelvis that doctors wouldn’t have been able to provide an implant without the 3D printing solution.

Hip replacements
Credit: YouTube.com
Hip replacements

In multiple cases, doctors have used 3D printing to design customized hip replacements. In 2012, a Belgian company called Mobelife created a custom hip implant for a 16-year-old girl with a rare degenerative condition that had limited her to a wheelchair, according to Reuters. Last year, the Mayo Clinic released a video detailing the possibilities 3D printing has created for custom hip surgery to provide implants to patients before their condition becomes debilitating.

Exoskeleton for paralyzed woman
Credit: YouTube.com
Exoskeleton for paralyzed woman

With the help of an “exoskeleton” custom designed and 3D printed to fit her body, Amanda Boxtel walked this year for the first time since a skiing accident left her paralyzed from the waist down in 1992, CNET reported. 3D Systems collaborated with a company called EksoBionics to scan Boxtel’s body and create an exoskeleton that fit her body and helped her walk on her own, without causing discomfort or injury in the process.

Home-made prosthetic hand
Credit: YouTube.com
Home-made prosthetic hand

After losing two fingers and damaging two others in a carpentry accident, South African Richard Van As, realizing that most prosthetics available on the market were out of his price range, set out to make one himself, NPR reported last year. His research would connect him with American designer and puppeteer Ivan Owen, and eventually the mother of a 5-year-old boy who was born without fingers on his right hand. With their design and a free 3D printer courtesy of MakerBot, the two created the “Robohand,” a functioning prosthetic hand that those with access to a 3D printer can build for just $150. Van As would go on to print the Robohand for hundreds of children, never charging a dime in payment.

Pediatric heart surgery
Pediatric heart surgery

In February, doctors in Louisville, Ken., performed the world’s first pediatric heart surgery aided by 3D printing, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported. The 14-month-old patient was born with heart defects that were so severe that the doctors couldn’t identify the exact problems prior to the operation. A surgeon at the Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville contacted the University of Louisville engineering school about 3D printing, and received a free MakerBot 3D Printer for the project. Using CT scans of the patient’s heart, the doctors printed a plastic replica of the heart to study before the surgery.

Accommodating pediatrics in general
Accommodating pediatrics in general

Pediatric markets tend to be overlooked by large companies developing medical devices, as the market is naturally smaller and the patients’ needs are too specific for mass-produced hardware. Recognizing this, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia directed an annual contest on innovative medical technology to 3D printing, MedCity News reported. The contest sparked research on the use of 3D printing to create custom devices quickly, providing fast care to children who may not have received it without the technology.

3D-printed drugs
Credit: YouTube.com
3D-printed drugs

In 2012, researchers at Glasgow University presented a method for 3D printing medicine. The research involves a process that has been in use in chemical engineering labs for years, but has required expensive hardware and technical processes that consumers couldn’t access. 3D printing changes this, and enabled the researchers to even create anti-cancer drugs. However, the potential for the technology goes much farther than making the pharmacy obsolete – the researchers said that the process can monitor chemical reactions to diagnose illnesses and prescribe medication on-site, all before the patient feels any of the illness’ effects, the BBC reported.

Blood-recycling machine
Blood-recycling machine

Earlier this month, a company called Brightwake announced that it developed a “blood-recycling machine” using a Stratasys 3D printer. The device is designed to collect blood during major operations, such as open heart surgery, and aims to reduce the need for donor blood and complex transfusion procedures during operation.

Dental implants and crowns
Dental implants and crowns

3D printing has enabled dentists to scan teeth on-site and print implants and crowns in roughly an hour, according to Singularity Hub. Previously, dentists were limited to molds, which had to be sent to a lab that created the implant and sent it back to the dentist – a process that involved weeks and multiple visits for patients.

Hearing aids
Hearing aids

While most uses of 3D printing in the medical world has managed to make headlines over the past few years, the technology has been used to build hearing aids for years. Because hearing aids are so small and intricately designed, the only alternative to 3D printing the devices is building them by hand. Obviously, 3D printing is the most efficient method, and has been used to make the majority of the hearing aids used in the world, according to a Forbes report.