The fast evolution of new, exciting medical innovations coming to the market each year are driven by cutting-edge technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. One of the most promising technologies for the healthcare industry is 3D printing, the ability to transform three-dimensional plans directly into products. Digital models or blueprints are used to print the product using successive layers of material. There is a wide array of different applications for 3D printing in the medical field, many of which may be used to improve on the standard delivery of healthcare.
Healthcare professionals are currently using 3D printing to create prosthetic limbs that are more finely customized to the patient. While traditional prostheses are generally customized to each patient, the process typically requires people to wait for weeks or even months before receiving the final product. Through 3D printing, creating prostheses is more precise, faster and less expensive.
The final, 3D-printed product is virtually equivalent to a custom prosthesis made by hand, but it can be created in a fraction of the time. In addition, scanning technology makes it possible to achieve a fit and appearance that surpass many traditional options. The cost efficiency of 3D-printed prostheses has also made it easier to supply prosthetics to children, who quickly outgrow them. Previously, cost concerns often put a practical limit on the number of prostheses a child could receive until fully grown.
One of the most exciting applications of 3D printing technology is bioprinting, which relies on materials other than plastic or metal. Bioprinters use pipettes to layer living cells, known as “bio-ink,” on top of each other to create artificial tissues. Researchers have successfully used bioprinting to create “organoids,” or small-scale replicas of organs for medical research. Other investigators are working to create bioprinted organs for human transplantation. The company Organovo offers bioprinted liver and intestinal tissues for drug development, and it recently presented its bioprinted liver tissue as a potential treatment for type 1 tyrosinemia, a condition caused by the lack of an enzyme responsible for metabolizing the amino acid tyrosine. In addition, the Wake Forest Institute is experimenting with 3D-printed skin grafts for burn victims and has already created miniature brain models for medical research.
Precise surgical tools
Surgeons require sterile tools such as forceps, clamps, hemostats and other instruments to operate on patients. 3D printing is capable of producing such tools in a sterile environment, as well as novel instruments. Some engineers have created small, exacting tools for specific purposes to enable surgery on small areas without any collateral damage. The traditional manufacture of surgery tools can be expensive, but 3D printing significantly reduces the cost — meaning surgeries may become less expensive in addition to more precise and less invasive.
3D printing can also create drugs customized to each patient. This innovation could make drug administration much easier and particularly assist patients who must take multiple drugs. In the future, it could be possible for these patients to take a single pill that delivers various medications at different release times.
Already, such technology is being tested for patients with diabetes. An application called Polypill is addressing dosage and drug interaction problems by delivering several medications in a single pill. This option could simplify complicated medication schedules and increase patient adherence to dosage schedules. Furthermore, it may be cheaper to manufacture one pill containing multiple medications rather than manufacture several medications separately. Some experts are already examining how this technology could increase access to medication in developing countries.
Problems can arise during surgery, but surgeons become more adept at handling complications as they gain more experience. 3D printing may help provide such experience by offering patient-specific replicas of organs for surgeons to “operate” on before performing the operation on a live patient. Preliminary research has shown this technique can minimize trauma to the patient and reduce the time it takes to complete the surgery. Already, 3D printing has been used in this way prior to full-face transplants, spinal procedures and other surgeries. In some locations, such as Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, it is becoming standard practice.
Most implants are mass-produced and then tailored to the patient. Creating customized implants is extremely expensive and time-intensive. However, 3D printing has the power to change this paradigm in the near future. Moreover, 3D printing provides more control over the design of the implant and gives patients better options. For example, Osseus Fusion Systems successfully implanted its 3D-printed lumbar interbody fusion device into its first patient in January 2019. With 80-percent porosity, the spinal implant reduces stiffness and encourages bone cell growth for better outcomes. This degree of porosity has not been achieved using traditional implant production methods. In addition, 3D printing makes it easier to create implants with better radiologic visibility.