3D printing medical applications are gaining tremendous momentum in the medical industry. As technology advances, 3D printers have progressed quickly, and the printing process is so precise that 3D printers can now even replicate the vascular systems needed to make organs viable. This technology is vital as over 114,000 people in the U.S. are on organ transplant waiting lists.
3D printing applications in medicine go well beyond recreating vascular systems. Here’s a look at the current various medical applications for 3D printing.
3D Printing Technology Commercially Available for Medical Applications
There are four primary uses of 3D printing in the medical industry today.
- Tissues and organoids
- Custom prosthetics
- Surgical instruments
- Surgical models that are specific to each patient
Scientists are currently researching how to manufacture organs such as a liver or heart using the 3D printing process. This technology is developing rapidly because of the necessity to find less expensive alternatives to current medical solutions. As a result, complex life-saving procedures are available to more people.
There are several available technologies currently used for 3D printing medical applications. Powder bed fusion is the one most commonly used to 3D print medical devices. Medical 3D printing uses this technology because of its compatibility with many materials used to make medical devices such as nylon and titanium.
Currently, the FDA has 3D printers that help them understand the capabilities of 3D printing for medical applications and how the general public can benefit from the industry’s use of this technology. They have other printing technologies along with 3D printing that they use to evaluate which parts of the workflows and processes of the printing affect the quality of the medical device once it’s finished.
Revolutionary 3D Printing Medical Application
Sometimes known as bioprinting, 3D printing is transforming the medical industry. It’s making surgical procedures faster and providing less-expensive solutions for creating prosthetic limbs and surgical tools.
3D printing is even replicating organoids and tissues, so physicians can learn more about how they function and the diseases that affect them.
Current 3D printing medical applications use imaging such as CT scans, MRI scans, X-Rays, and ultrasounds to create a digital model of the organ or tissue to be 3D printed. Physicians then upload scans to a 3D printer. Per Verdict Medical Devices, 3D printing for the medical field is forecasted to reach $3.5 billion by 2025. The main 3D printing medical applications are revolutionizing the medical field enhancing patient care.
Bioprinting- Organoids and Tissue Engineering
Physicians like surgeon Dr. Jason Chuen of the Austin Hospital in Melbourne say that 3D printing medical organs help doctors practice surgical procedures such as placing a stent in a heart. Dr. Chuen advised that with a model or organoid made from images of the actual patient, he could assess the bioprinted model much easier than the patient’s heart.
Evaluating the bioprinted model allowed him to make sure that the stent he would use was the correct size. Testing the size of a stent in a real patient clearly isn’t possible because of the invasiveness of the surgery. 3D printing technology makes this a viable option.
Organoids mimic actual organs only smaller opening up endless possibilities for everything from testing medical procedures to learning more about diseases. Medical companies such as Organovo are experimenting with 3D printing intestinal tissue and livers to study these organs in vitro and to help develop drug treatments for diseases.
The company announced in May 2018 that they had preclinical information on how liver tissue functions in a study of type one tyrosinemia. Tyrosinemia is a liver condition that affects how the body metabolizes tyrosine, an amino acid, because of its deficiency in the body.
Wake Forest Institute utilized a related approach to develop a brain organoid that could allow scientists to discover new drugs and for disease modeling. “In May 2018, they publicized that their organoids have a fully cell-based, functional blood-brain barrier that mimics normal human anatomy.” Wake Forest is also working on printing 3D skin grafts to apply to burn patients.
Rehearsing Surgical Procedures
Surgical rehearsal using bioprinted organoids helps surgeons’ practice to perform surgeries faster to reduce patient trauma, and the cost savings are substantial. It also allows surgeons to navigate complicated medical procedures.
Surgeries can cost $2,000 an hour so reducing how long it takes to do surgery can decrease the cost of operations considerably. Surgeons have rehearsed a broad range of procedures from spinal operations to full-face transplants. This 3D printing medical application is becoming a routine practice.
In Belfast in January 2019, surgeons practiced before a young woman’s kidney transplant successfully using a bioprinted model of the donor’s kidney. Her father was the organ donor, and there were many complications because his kidney had a dangerous cyst and his blood group wasn’t compatible with hers. Bioprinting allowed surgeons to find the location of the cyst and assess how big it was.
Physicians in Dubai operated on a patient who had a severe cerebral aneurysm using a bioprinted map of her blood vessels to traverse her arteries safely. This surgery was complicated as the aneurysm was in four veins.
3D Printing Helps Find Alternative Drug Treatments for Patients
Patients suffering from a variety of ailments often need to take several drugs each day for treatment. 3D printing allows researchers to customize medicines possibly reducing many pills to one. With 3D printing, scientists can practice embedding more than one drug in a single capsule designed to release each drug at different times. A polypill containing three different medications has already been created to treat patients with hypertension and diabetes. 3D printing medical applications involving pharmacology have the potential to change patient treatment in the future tremendously.
Custom Tailored Prosthetics and Implants for Patients
Researchers at Wake Forest are already 3D printing muscle, bone, and ear structures that they’ve transplanted in animals to see how they would function in humans. These implants have developed blood vessel systems and functional tissues, which means that these bioprinted structures have the correct strength, size, and function to use in people.
These experiments proved that bioprinting living tissue structures to replace those diseased in patients is possible. Wake Forest researchers accomplished this using a conventional inkjet printer that they modified.
3D printing medical applications such as custom-made prosthetics are providing custom-made highly functioning prosthetics for people. It also speeds up the process as often amputees must wait weeks or sometimes months to get their prostheses using traditional methods.
3D printing makes the process quicker and is more cost effective since these products are less expensive. This process is particularly cost efficient for children because they outgrow the prosthetics often.
Patients can now design a limb that works with their needs thanks to a company called Body Labs. They’ve developed an innovative system that lets patients create a personalized model for a prosthetic using a scan of their actual limbs. As a result, they fit and feel better.
Another 3D printing medical application is the development of surgical implements. This precise process can create a variety of sterile surgical tools such as clamps, hemostats, scalpel handles, and forceps.
3D printing produces sterile and precise tools because of their roots in the practice of Japanese origami. They can also be made very small because of this practice meaning that surgeons can use them to operate in tiny areas causing less damage to patients.
They also cost much less to make using 3D printing, and there was no increased cost for the faster manufacturing times, surgeon requested modifications or increased complexity. One lab test created fully reproducible surgical sets in an average of 6 hours per set. These sets were made using the SLS Sinterstation HiQ.
These 3D printing medical applications are revolutionizing modern medicine and changing the industry rapidly. They are providing cost-effective solutions to maximizing quality patient care at a lower price. This reduced cost means that additional cutting-edge surgical and medical procedures will become available to more people without decreasing the quality of the products or service.
As technology advances, the precision of 3D printing will be fine-tuned making even more medical inventions possible. Researchers hope to one day make organs to transplant in humans although right now there are many cost and technological obstacles to overcome. For one, research and development of 3D printing are costly. Also, while 3D printing can print miniature organs now, scaling is a problem for actual-sized organs.
However, other problems like using donors for tissue matches might resolve by taking cells from the transplant recipient themselves to develop the replacement organ. Using the donor’s tissue could minimize associated risks such as the need for immunosuppressants for life and transplant rejection. Some predict that the first bioprinted complex organs could be available within 20 years.
Despite problems with future organ replacements, 3D printing medical applications are providing amazing results in the field of medicine today. 3D printing is changing the world one industry at a time and plays a crucial part now in saving lives.
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