Medical 3D printing, although still highly experimental, has massive potential and is already changing lives for the better in some areas of medicine.
With the advent of 3D printing, every industry stands to benefit from the innovative technology. This is particularly true for the medical field. Here are a few mind blowing examples which have already become a reality.
Airway splints for children
Babies suffering from tracheobronchomalacia have already benefitted from medical 3D printing. This condition, found 1 in every 2000 children, causes the airways around the lungs to collapse.
Infants with the condition are confined to intensive care treatment and often only live a matter of weeks. A number of test patients have received 3D printed airway splints, the first specifically designed for children.
They are inserted and will remain as the patient grows, thanks to their manufacturing from a range of biomaterials. In fact, because they are able to change shape after they are printed, scientists are calling them 4D structures.
This means only one insertion is needed and it adapts as the child gets older, eventually helping to open the airways properly. The device itself does not need to be removed and will dissolve eventually. Each airway splint is unique, customized for each child’s specific airway problem.
By the time the children reach the age of 3, their airways should have developed enough for the condition to disappear. More importantly, each child is at home with their families instead of at the hospital. And the cost for each splint? A mere $10! Simply amazing.
Bodycad implants and surgical tools
Another area where medical 3D printing is making a massive impact is the field of implants and surgical tools. Here, patients receive implants specifically designed for their anatomy.
This makes each implant much more comfortable than others used in the past. By providing a far better fit, they also are strengthened significantly. Not only that but the implants themselves can be manufactured far quicker than traditional ones.
Along with printed implants, the surgeon receives all the necessary tools for its insertion. These are 3D printed as well!
Implants themselves need not only be biomaterials or plastic as described above. Numerous cases around the world have seen patients receive metal implants. Cases include a titanium 3D printed skull section and perhaps more impressively, titanium mesh tubing fused onto spinal cords.
In one case in China, a man lost his ability to walk due to the removal of a spinal tumor as well as part of his backbone. Doctors inserted a titanium mesh implant, over 7.5 inches long. This encouraged the spinal cord to heal and restore itself, leading the patient to eventually walk again.
Medical 3D printing is making waves in the field of rehabilitation too. Here, patient specific braces, prostheses, orthoses, as well as parts for powered exoskeletons, are created in various ways. This includes helping patients suffering from broken bones right up to amputees. In many cases, a patient with weaker or deformed extremities can be given orthosis to help him in daily tasks thus giving them a sense of independence.
One case, in particular, involved a man who was in an accident and suffered from a partial paralysis in his hands. He was in need of a lightweight and durable orthosis, so he could hold objects and do activities he enjoyed during rehabilitation. Biomedical engineer Eliza Wrobel reverse engineered the orthosis by taking a mold of his hand and then 3D scanning it. She then used CAD software to fine tune it to his needs, ending with a design requiring 70 parts.
The working prototype of this design was manufactured on ZMorph multitool 3D printer. The final result is a testament to how useful 3D printers can be for creating rehabilitation orthosis. Her working design was able to be prototyped in-house, quickly designed, improved, and fabricated with the help of durable ABS-based parts printed with ZMorph.
Replacement bones, cartilage, and muscle
The incredible internal possibilities for medical 3D printing continue to grow each day. Other than replacement bones, patients are now receiving muscle as well as cartilages. This requires a specialized 3D printer called a bioprinter.
How exactly does it work? By using various polymer materials, the printer is able to print cells in shapes similar to the original tissue. The cells themselves have a lattice of microchannels in the tissues.
This allows nutrients and oxygen to be delivered as it would normally. The cells are constantly fed and continue to grow as a result. In various tests on mice, structures have been implanted under the skin resulting in tissue, cartilage and blood vessels growing to provide support. In other tests, blood vessels, as well as complex nerves, have formed to support certain printed 3D structures. While this technology is still in its testing phase, it has shown a lot of potential.
Used for patients suffering from eye cancer, these facial prostheses are made from a combination of facial scanning of the patient and then 3D printing. This is beneficial for those who have had facial surgery resulting in hollow sockets.
With over 2700 new cases of eye cancer in the United States alone each year, these prostheses are helping many patients raise their self-esteem after life-saving surgery. Not only that but the costs are also far lower.
A conventional prosthesis, which takes weeks to produce, can cost in the region of $10 000 to $15 000. Those that are 3D printed take only a few hours, lowering costs significantly. Over time, it may need to be replaced, but each patient’s facial details are kept on record. This speeds up the replacement process significantly.
One of the widest medical 3D printing applications right now are surgical models which doctors can use during their studies in medical schools as well as to prepare for difficult and complex operations. CT scans of broken bones can be easily imported to 3D printing software and manufactured within hours even on desktop 3D printers like ZMorph.
Many doctors go even further. Skull model can help prepare for operating a child with a rare deformity, while 3D printed hearts enables surgeons to find the best way to restore the patency of veins or set up the bypasses.
Medical 3D printing is transforming medical care
Without a doubt, current medical 3D printing applications are helping many of patients in a number of fields of medicine. They are just scratching the surface, however, and as the technology improves, the areas where they can help will continue to increase.