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3D printing will revolutionize the manufacturing of medical devices and surgical tools as well as personalized prosthetic limbs and other body parts.
Tissue engineering is just one of the new advances researchers and doctors have made using 3D printing – with this technology it is now possible to construct human tissue from a printer, implant it in a patient and watch it grow into the body.
3D Printing Is a Game-Changer
At first the technology was employed to build devices like braces and hearing aids but now there are 3D-printed implants, 3D-printed practice models and even bone replacements. For example, surgeons at the University of Michigan used 3D printing in 2013 to save the life of a 3-month-old boy born with severely compromised tissue in his airway. By designing and printing a scaffold-like tube, they surgically implanted it to hold his airway open. As the baby's airway tissue grows around the tube, after three years it will harmlessly dissolve.
3D printing works by melting plastic filament and squeezing it through a nozzle, and using computer-generated rendering it builds the form layer by layer – imagine a 3D object composed of multiple slices, building the rendering from the bottom up.
And these printers can create almost anything, including prosthetics that can be customized for the individual, reducing costs by making-to-order instead of sizing a-one-size-fits all, mass-produced item. This is especially useful for the parents of children who frequently require prosthetics because children grow out of prosthetics like clothing – compared to a typical prosthetic limb which can start at $5000 and run all the way up to $50,000, 3D-printed equivalents can be constructed for just hundreds of dollars.
A Surgeon's New Helper
The ability to 3D print artificial limbs exists; however, it could be several years before 3D-printed prosthetics become mainstream in the healthcare industry. 3D printing in medicine is now mainly used for bone and tissue reconstruction. Last year, Israeli doctors were able to replace a Syrian man's jaw that was destroyed in the civil war there and another example is the famous 'robohand,' created for a 14-year-old Sudanese boy whose arms were blown off in that country's civil war.
3D Printing Is Amazingly Innovative
The future applications, predicted by pundits and sought after by researchers, could be 3D-printed organs. At the moment, the five medical applications of 3D printing are knee and hip replacements, hearing aids, dental and knee replacements.
In the next decade, the 3D bioprinting market is expected to top $6 billion and a company called Organovo is already 3D printing liver tissue for the purposes of research. With this, a completely printed human organ that can be grown in a lab remains too complex – a science fiction dream. But remember when the stuff of dreams was human flight and space travel. In the meantime, surgeons and researchers are turning their attention to what's achievable in the here and now.
In other innovations, CSIRO's Lab 22, in Melbourne, Australia, has created the first 3D-printed sternum and ribs to save a patient diagnosed with a chest wall sarcoma. Due to the advanced stage of the patient's cancer the medical team removed his sternum and part of his rib cage. However doctors knew finding a suitable implant would be near impossible: enter the 3D printing solution.
Using Titanium metal printing – often used for chest implants – a made-to-measure implant from the patient's scan was created. This instance illustrates another challenge for the 3D-printed medical applications: developing new materials and building printers that can utilize them. But imagine a world where the soldier can get a made-to-measure limb replacement while he or she is on the operating table, or a car accident victim can have their damaged tissue or bone either replaced or rebuilt from scratch. Dr. James Yoo at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in the United States has succeeded in making a printer that doesn't 'print skin' as an independent object to be applied to the patient at a later time; his device can print skin straight into the areas required on the patient.
3D Technology Helps Save Lives
And the 3D-technology is not restricted to prosthetic, tissue or dental replacement applications. The technology can be utilized to create surgical instruments from scratch and 'field ready' 3D printers can be shipped to disaster areas anywhere in the world where medical teams can print surgical tools and orthopedics and tissue right on the spot. Indeed this is an exciting technology and though there are limitations currently, the possibilities are only limited by one's imagination.
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