When it comes to 3D printing, the sky is the limit. As 3D printing technology continues to advance, applications can be as far reaching as airplane and automobile parts to medical devices and even anatomically correct, biocompatible models.
Although 3D printing technology is developing at a rapid pace, the technology itself is not new. It emerged in the 1980s as a means of creating rapid prototypes. In recent years the applications for 3D printed models have evolved with the available hardware, software, and printable materials. Evolving technology, paired with the creative and innovative minds of scientists, engineers, and physicians, has been the launching pad for developments within 3D printing technology specific to healthcare.
One way 3D printing technology is poised to create better patient outcomes is in creating an anatomically and patient-specific models to aid in surgery and medical procedures. With the capability to 3D print patient-specific models, more accurate preparation and planning can take place, leading towards a more effective procedure. Combining the advancements in 3D imaging with current 3D printing, a cardiac surgeon can conceivably make a model of a particular patient’s specific heart defect and evaluate the ins and outs of every possible surgical outcome before ever stepping into the operating room.
Although exciting and promising technology, the mass production or common commercial use of 3D printing in biomedicine is not yet practical. In fact, it is quite expensive. Though there have been studies displaying the positive effects of allowing hospitals to have access to 3D printing hardware and materials, insurance companies do not reimburse hospitals for what is spent. When and if that day comes, it is expected that many more advancements will quickly be made due to hospitals’ ability to create on-site 3D printing laboratories.
What does this mean for healthcare? What new developments can we expect as we continue moving into the future?
We have already seen how a group at Virginia Tech was able to apply hard work and ingenuity into creating a prosthetic hand for a girl in Salem, Virginia. But what if we are able to go beyond prosthetics? What if we could move beyond using metals or plastics as 3D printing materials? What if we could somehow develop living tissue?
According to an article by Kevin Hand of Popular Science, that is just the type of thing happening in biomedical labs all around the world. Bioengineers are beginning to print prototype body parts, such as heart valves, artificial bone, and skin grafts, to name only a few. In fact, James Yoo, a researcher at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, has been working to develop a portable printer that is capable of printing skin grafts directly onto burn victims.
3D printing applications in healthcare do not stop with the human body. They continue with the tools that doctors require for examining and operating on the human body. Surgical tools, like forceps, scalpel handles, and clamps, are able to come out of the printer already sterile–and the materials used are a tenth the cost of stainless steel equivalents.
As this technology continues to advance, we are optimistic that it will soon be readily available for the average consumer and patient. We know for this to happen efficacy, safety, and benefits will need to be recognized by insurance companies, regulatory bodies, and physicians alike. Our curious and science-loving team will continue to keep an eye on the role of this technology in creating better patient outcomes and ultimately creating a happier, healthier, and safer world.