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Could 3D printed bones ever become the norm?

In September of last year, much was made in the scientific press of a new ink that could be used to 3D print flexible structures that would perfectly mimic human bones. The material’s creators were keen to stress its advantages over existing options for replacing damaged bones, such as taking bones from other parts of the body (a painful and invasive process) or implants (which could prove brittle and unreliable). In particular, the material’s flexibility meant that it could easily be shaped and manipulated in the operating room, allowing surgeons to create perfectly fitted bone replacements that would then encourage the growth of blood vessels and eventually turn into natural bone.

In June of 2017, we saw further progress in this area in an especially heartwarming story where an injured dog was successfully implanted with a 3D-printed bone implant, created by the University of Glasgow. However, this process is not likely to be ready for use on humans for at least another two years.

While it’s certainly inspiring to see 3D printing evolving to make a tangible difference in people’s lives, these stories also serve to illustrate the key challenge in establishing this technology in the medical sector. The medical sector is (quite rightly) extremely highly regulated, so any new technology must be able to meet all appropriate industry standards to the letter, in addition to proving its worth in a hospital environment.

Fortunately, while the process is a slow one, we are definitely seeing signs of progress. Last month, the FDA gave formal approval for Si-Bone’s iFuse system for 3D printing medical implants with titanium that are designed specifically to promote bone growth. This approval clears the way for the technique to be utilised across the medical world and indicates that 3D printing in the medical sector is gaining acceptance as a useful, effective tool.

If 3D printing specialists continue to develop new materials around medical requirements and work closely with the authorities to ensure the technology meets all the appropriate regulations, we will eventually see it fully establish itself, with hospitals being able to make full use of its capabilities. Most of all, we would expect to see more and more companies developing innovative solutions around medical challenges rather than attempting to force existing technology to fit into the operating theatre, where its effectiveness is likely to be limited.

It will certainly take time, but the potential benefits for both doctors and patients are enormous.