How 3D printing is making its mark in the world of medicine
12 July 2017
3D printing has slowly but surely establishing itself in the medical world for a number of years now. While we’re still a long way from seeing a 3D printer in every hospital, recent successes and innovations suggest that day may in fact be closer than we previously would have expected. Let’s look at some of the most exciting ways doctors and 3D printing specialists are applying this technology to transform patients’ lives…
Prosthetic limbs have always been extremely expensive, particularly the more sophisticated models. 3D printing allows doctors to design and deliver advanced prosthetics, crafted to fit individual patients. This has lead to the creation of designs that would not have been cost-effective to produce otherwise, dramatically enhancing amputees’ quality of life. Paragon Rapid Technologies have proven themselves particularly adept in this area, working with Touch Bionics to create the world’s first multi-articulated prosthetic hand out of high-quality plastics.
3D printing has been used to successfully convert medical scans into clear, life-sized models. These can be used for educational purposes — as the colourful models produced by 3Faktur are — or to aid doctors in their work, helping them plan complex medical procedures. In October of 2016, this approach enabled doctors in New York to successfully separate twins who were born joined at the head, after a 3D scan of the boys’ heads was printed and used to prepare for the 27-hour operation. These models are also being used in medical research to better understand how cancers and tumours spread through the body.
Research is ongoing into using 3D printers to create personalised medicines in tablet form, so prescriptions can be filled on the spot. We were fortunate enough to conduct an in-depth interview with Dr Alvaro Goyanes, one of the pioneers of this technology, in which he offered his insights into its development and potential applications.
By their very nature, medical implants are incredibly challenging to produce, as every element must be precisely tailored to the individual patient’s requirements. However, doctors are already taking advantage of 3D printing’s precision and flexibility to engineer implants for a number of highly sophisticated applications. In particular, research into 3D printing bones has made significant strides in recent years, and Johnson Matthey recently unveiled their new approach to printing anti-bacterial implants using precious metals.
In several cases, this work has saved patients’ lives. For example, in 2014, doctors in Holland used 3D printing to replace the top of a patient’s skull. The patient was suffering from a rare condition where excessive bone growth was causing her skull to press down on her brain, which would have proved fatal if not for the doctors’ intervention.
Casts and braces
For patients who struggle with ill-fitting casts and braces, 3D printing enables hospitals to create tailored pieces that minimise any discomfort while broken bones heal, or provide optimal support for patients who struggle with joint pain or similar conditions. Such designs are more comfortable, more hygienic and easier for doctors to work with when applying treatments such as ultrasound — a significant improvement on familiar approaches.
While it may seem straight out of the realms of science fiction, it will not be long before we are able to print entire human organs, using 3D bioprinting. Promising results we’ve seen so far include:
- Cornell University successfully printing a heart valve
- 3D printing moulds for collagen ear implants that will allow cartilage to grow around them
- Artificial blood vessels, which open the door to printing entire transplantable organs
Drilling and cutting guides
Printing custom drilling and cutting guides for surgeons prior to an operation can save hospitals a considerable amount of time and money. These guides can not only be designed to perfectly fit the patient, but also accommodate surgeon’s personal preferences, allowing them to perform with the greatest possible precision. While surgeons will typically enter the OR with a large number of tools in order to provide themselves with some flexibility, printing the exact tools they need beforehand enhances their overall efficiency and ensures operations can be completed in the shortest possible time.
Such tools have proven especially useful in the treatment of bone deformities and during knee operations. Similar approaches are also being used in dentistry, to provide dentists with easy access to patient-specific tools.
While it takes time for any new technology to fully establish itself in the medical sector, there’s no doubt that 3D printing is here to stay. As we see more and more successful applications of the technology to enhance the lives of patients and enhance the capabilities of doctors, we are sure see new materials, technology, processes and standards to evolve in response. 3D printing will then find itself in a position to meet the medical sector’s rigorous regulations and requirements for tools and technology, so these innovations can be deployed in hospitals around the world.