Medical science is constantly evolving, bringing us more sophisticated and powerful solutions to some of history’s most pernicious health problems. From artificial intelligence to telemedicine, medical science has advanced in leaps and bounds just in the span of the last decade or so — and one of the major technologies to come to the forefront of the healthcare world is 3D printing.
3D printing first got its start in 1981, when Dr. Hideo Kodama at the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute first conceived of a “rapid prototyping” technique that laid the foundation for what was to come — printing and assembling photopolymers layer by layer to create 3D objects.
Some years later, Charles Hull filed a patent for Stereolithography, which built upon Kodama’s work. Hull created 3D Systems in 1986 and released the first 3D printing device, the SLA-1, in 1987.
Competition soon grew fierce among rival developers, and by 1994, there was a growing niche market in small-scale manufacturing for 3D printers.
3D printing made its way into the medical world in 1999 when scientists at the Wake Forest Institute printed synthetic scaffolds of a human bladder and implanted them into the patient. Because the scaffolding was surrounded by cells from the patient, there was a very low risk of the body rejecting the implant.
Today, 3D printing has a much broader application in medicine. It’s one of eight core developing technologies that are creating innovation and a whole field of new possibilities in healthcare.
For example, 3D printing is now often used to replicate anatomy ahead of surgery, so surgeons have an exact model of the areas they’ll be performing operations on. This is done with X-Rays and MRIs that are translated to software models and then printed.
3D printing is also being used to create tools and medical equipment on-site and in small numbers, as compared to large-scale manufacturing of tools that then have to be shipped to the hospital or other healthcare facility. This can be particularly important for rural or low-income areas where access to tools might be more difficult.
One of the more exciting technologies under development is the 3D printing of actual living cells — a process known as bio-printing. Bio-printing can replicate skin tissue, stem cells, and perhaps one day full-on organs, potentially eliminating the need for donors and the accompanying wait lists. Currently, we can bio-print things like cardiac tissue, kidney cells, and more.
Cancer research is another area where 3D printing is poised to change things dramatically. Through bio-printing, researchers can actually create diseased or cancerous cells, allowing them to make a much closer and more detailed study of how tumors develop. Doctors can then apply experimental treatments to test them, ahead of testing them on humans.
3D printing can also be used in the replication of bone and cartilage, which could potentially be used in things like knee replacements and perhaps even spinal cord repair. While this aspect of the technology is still under development, it could one day restore function and mobility to patients who might not otherwise have a way of finding it again.
One area where this technology is being used to great effect is in the area of 3D-printed prosthetic limbs. Traditional application of prosthetics can be time-consuming and expensive, especially when it comes to children, who can outgrow their prosthetics quickly. With 3D printing technology, a prosthetic can be imaged, customized, and uniquely tailored to the patient’s needs, reducing the need for repeated visits to the doctor and potentially expensive adjustments. A similar process is used for the manufacture of 3D printed dental prosthetics, which stand to be much more comfortable and less expensive than their traditionally manufactured counterparts.
While the advantages of 3D printing in the medical world are numerous, the technology is not without its drawbacks.
For one thing, 3D printing is still a relatively young technology, especially compared to medical science that’s been around since the turn of the century. The technology hasn’t yet proliferated to the point where everyday doctors and surgeons will necessarily have the knowledge and skills necessary to use it properly. Third-party organizations can assist with training and teaching, but there is still a way to go in terms of making the technology fully mainstream.
There’s also the issue of access. While 3D printers have come down to the consumer level in terms of pricing, that doesn’t mean the technology still isn’t costly to implement in terms of equipment, maintenance, and training. While this is another area where time will likely improve the situation, there is a long road ahead before the full potential of 3D printing in the medical world can be realized.