We are well into the age of plastics. New devices and techniques are allowing polymers to influence our lives like never before in a variety of industries. But perhaps no field has benefited more from the rise of polymer research than medicine and health care. Scientists have developed innovative new ways to use plastics to help treat patients more effectively and less invasively, as well as to gain better insight into an individual's specific physical makeup.
3D printing for a cure
Arguably, the most impactful and useful development of plastics use in the healthcare setting is through the leverage of additive printing. This technique allows doctors, physicians and researchers to create tangible models of hearts, lungs and other organs – providing a previously unobtainable level of insight. Plus, 3D printing can help doctors create custom, polymer-based drug delivery systems for less invasive treatment procedures.
Customization is key. With 3D printing, doctors won't have to rely on outside pharmaceutical companies or manufacturers when they can model and create a plastic-based device in their own office.
"Heart surgery is risky – the slightest error can be devastating."
Mapping the heart in three dimensions
At the University of Cincinnati, researchers 3D printed a model of the heart of a patient who was scheduled to undergo a difficult operation, reported Cincinnati.com. The heart helped the doctors to better prepare for the procedure – in other words, they could operate on the model heart first to make sure they got everything exactly right.
The patient had a history of complex heart difficulties for which surgery was finally necessary. But heart surgery is risky – the slightest error can be devastating. Surgeons are professionals, but the ability to print 3D models of almost anything gives them more practice and an added layer of insurance. Plus, the doctors were able to easily sit down in a room, pass the model heart around and discuss the surgery together.
"You don't know until you actually get in there what you're going to find," Dr. David Morales, director of cardiothoracic surgery, told Cincinnati.com. "[B]ut with the model, we know, and to actually know is huge and makes everything efficient … During this surgery, the heart's stopped. So being efficient during that time is not a bad thing."
But as useful as it is to be able to cut into a model heart before heading into the operation room, it is not the only medical product that 3D printing may yield – nor is it even the most groundbreaking.
Resorable polymers may revolutionize drug delivery
As it stands, administering drugs to a patient has its limits. There is no way to guarantee that the compounds reach their target, or avoid other areas – that is, until a breakthrough in 3D printing and customizable polymers, reported Plastics Today.
Resorable polymers are those that may be absorbed back into the human body. They allow doctors to deliver medicine in capsule form without worrying about what happens to the capsule. But with the advent of 3D printing, scientists can deliver antibiotics and chemotherepay to a specific group or type of cells.
"3D printing allows for tailor-made materials for personalized medicine," lead researcher Horacio R. D'Agostino, MD, FSIR, said in a news release. "It gives us the ability to construct devices that meet patients' needs, from their unique anatomy to specific medicine requirements. And as tools in interventional radiology, these devices are part of treatment options that are less invasive than traditional surgery."
In testing antiobiotic- and chemotherapeutic-carrying catheters, the team of researchers found it could effectively inhibit the growth of cancer or bacterial cells. What's more, this technique also allows doctors to customize the treatment for different individuals and various needs – an effective solution for a toddler may not be of use to his grandmother. Ideally, this method will also be able to prevent surgeries that would become inevitable with the use of traditional treatments.
"3D printing gives us the ability to craft devices that are better suited for certain patient populations that are traditionally tough to treat, such as children and the obese, who have different anatomies," D'Agostino explained. "There's limitless potential to be explored with this technology."