3D printing in the medical field: four major applications that are revolutionizing the industry
Additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing, was first developed in the 1980s. It involves taking a digital model or blueprint of the subject which is then printed in successive layers of a material appropriate to create a new version of the topic.
The technique has been applied (and used by) many different industries, including medical technology. Often, medical imaging techniques, such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and ultrasound are used to produce the original digital model, which is then fed into the printer 3D.
Medical 3D printing has been predicted to be worth $3.5 billion by 2025, up from $713.3 million in 2016. The industry’s compound annual growth rate is expected to reach $17.7 % between 2017 and 2025.
There are four main uses of 3D printing in the medical field that are associated with recent innovations: the creation of tissues and organoids, surgical tools, patient-specific surgical models, and custom-made prostheses.
Bio-printing of tissues and organoids
One of the many types of 3D printing used in the field of medical devices is bio-printing. Rather than printing with plastic or metal, bioprinters use a computer-guided pipette to layer living cells, called bioink, on top of each other to create artificial living tissue in the lab.
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These tissue or organoid constructs can be used for medical research because they mimic organs on a miniature scale. They are also being tested as cheaper alternatives to human organ transplants.
Organovo, a US-based medical laboratory and research company, is experimenting with printing liver and gut tissue to aid in the study of organs in vitro, as well as drug development for certain diseases. In May 2018, the company presented preclinical data on the functionality of its liver tissue in a program for tyrosinemia type 1, a condition that impairs the body’s ability to metabolize the amino acid tyrosine due to the deficiency of a enzyme.
The Wake Forest Institute in North Carolina, USA, has taken a similar approach by developing a 3D brain organoid with potential applications in drug discovery and disease modeling. The university announced in May 2018 that its organoids have a functional, fully cellular blood-brain barrier that mimics normal human anatomy. He has also worked on 3D printing skin grafts that can be applied directly to burns.
Surgical preparation assisted by the use of 3D printed models
Another application of 3D printing in the medical field is to create patient-specific organ replicas that surgeons can practice on before performing complicated operations. This technique has been proven to speed up procedures and minimize trauma for patients.
This type of procedure has been successfully performed in surgeries ranging from full face transplants to spinal procedures and is beginning to become common practice.
“3D printing has been used to create patient-specific organ replicas that surgeons can practice on before performing complicated operations.”
In Dubai, where hospitals are mandated to use 3D printing liberally, doctors successfully operated on a patient who had suffered a brain aneurysm in four veins, using a 3D printed model of her arteries to determine how to navigate safely in the blood vessels.
In January 2018, surgeons in Belfast performed a successful kidney transplant for a 22-year-old woman using a 3D printed model of her donor kidney. The transplant was fraught with complications because her father, who was her donor, had an incompatible blood type and it was discovered that his kidney had a potentially cancerous cyst. Using the 3D printed replica of his kidney, surgeons were able to assess the size and location of the tumor and cyst.
3D printing of surgical instruments
Sterile surgical instruments, such as forceps, hemostats, scalpel handles and forceps, can be produced using 3D printers.
Not only does 3D printing produce sterile tools, but some are based on the ancient Japanese practice of origami, which means they are precise and can be very small. These instruments can be used to operate on small areas without causing unnecessary additional harm to the patient.
One of the main advantages of using 3D printing rather than traditional manufacturing methods to produce surgical instruments is that production costs are significantly lower.
Custom prostheses using 3D printing
3D printing in the medical field can be used to produce custom prosthetic limbs to fit and adapt to the wearer. It is common for amputees to wait weeks or months before receiving prostheses through the traditional route; however, 3D printing dramatically speeds up the process, while creating much cheaper products that provide patients with the same functionality as traditionally manufactured prostheses.
The lower price of these products makes them particularly suitable for use with children, who quickly outgrow their prosthetic limbs.
“3D printing can be used to produce custom prosthetic limbs.”
3D printing also allows the patient to design a prosthesis that directly corresponds to their needs. For example, Body Labs has created a system that allows patients to model their prosthesis on their own limbs through scanning to create a more natural fit and appearance. Additionally, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sought to design more comfortable prosthetic sockets.