Posted on Jul 01, 2016, 6 a.m.
3D printers are becoming more and more common in physician's offices, and are about to revolutionize the future of medicine.
Medical applications for 3D printing are increasing swiftly and are progressing to revolutionize health care. 3D printing has already been used to print drugs, individualized body parts, medical devices, and even biological tissues. Medical professionals are starting to realize the full potential of this rapid and completely personalized manufacturing technology to improve patient care and treatment. Here are some examples of how 3D printing is currently being used in medicine.
Physicians are now able to 3D print bone models right from their office, employing their patients’ individual MRI or CT scans. Orthopedic surgeons can use models of a complex bone fracture to practice for a surgery and to show the patient exactly how they will treat it. Speed is necessary in these cases, and a desktop 3D printer can create models within a matter of hours. A biodegradable plastic called PLA is employed to produce bone models, which can also be scaled down to produce smaller, quicker-printing pieces.
A team of researchers at Tulane University Department of Urology 3D printed kidney models from patients who were awaiting tumor removal surgery. The models were printed in resin, using a SLA 3D Printer, and areas of tumor growth were highlighted. The models were used to help educate patients and trainees about the surgery, resulting in a better understanding on both sides.
3D printing has been employed to assist future parents in seeing their babies while still in the womb. The fetus image is extracted from an ultrasound scan and converted into a 3D printable model, which can subsequently be printed in PLA for the prospective parents to see and to keep as memorobilia, if they wish.
In March 2016 the first FDA-approved 3D printable pill was released. Spritam (levetiracetam) was designed to treat epilepsy, using proprietary ZipDose (designed to enable delivery of high-dose medications in a rapidly disintegrating form) technology. Spritram pills dissolve quickly with a sip of water. Although the effectiveness of Spritam has not changed, it is a first step towards a future where physicians can create and 3D print custom medications to suit the individual needs of their patients. Researchers at Wake Forest University has developed an algorithm and software that 3D prints pills with precise dosage adjustments, based on a patient’s characteristics. Inputs such as race, weight, gender, and liver function are employed to optimize the dosage necessary for each individual patient.
Typically, dentists need to make an educated guess as to where to position the drill when performing implant surgery. A new FDA class 1 material, called Dental SG now allows dentists to make surgical guide that shows the optimal location for the drill. A Dental SG device is 3D printed in flexible resin and fits over a model of the patient’s teeth, which was 3D printed, as well. These guides can be printed in the office before a surgery to be used for practice and to speed up recovery time for the patients, due to increased accuracy.
Sutrue, an automated hand-held suturing device created by Alex Berry, is currently undergoing trials. It features 3D printed resin parts and could also be used for a variety of suturing applications in the near future.
Traditionally, the process of obtaining a prosthetic limb can take anywhere from weeks to months, requiring custom fitting. As 3D printers become more affordable, it is becoming possible for owners to design and print a prosthetic limb. OpenBionics created an open source design for a 3D printed hand and e-Nabling the Future allows 3D printer owners to download open source 3D hand designs, print the parts, and donate to a person in need, if desired.
A research team at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh is employing 3D printing to build a brain tumour. They will use stem cells isolated from patients’ tumours as the building material and they will then closely observe the tumour growth. The expectation is that the 3D printed tumors will be a test ground for the effectiveness of different drugs and will assist in helping to find new treatments.
A 3D printed thyroid gland has been printed by 3DBio, a bioprinting start-up company, and successfully implanted into mice. This paves the way for whole-organ bioprinting, which until recently was considered science fiction.
Princeton and Johns Hopkins researchers have teamed up to 3D print a bionic human ear containing superhuman abilities. The bionic ear is printed using chondrocyte-seeded alginate hydrogel and sliver nanoparticle polymer. It is able to detect radio frequencies, which are outside the normal hearing range for humans. This is an example of the exciting merging of biology and nanoelectronics.
Researchers from the University of Stuttgart have developed a tiny 3D printed medical camera, no larger than a grain of salt, that can fit inside a syringe. This raises the possibility of delivering it directly to organs, and even to the brain.