With the sheer volume of excited media attention, and the press buzz that surrounds it, there can be few of us who today remain still unaware of the breakthrough technology of 3D printing. From the promises to revolutionize manufacturing, to suggestions that it has the potential to re-shape the consumer-driven nature of our society altogether, it is often tempting to label 3D printing as the stuff of science fiction. However, while the days when we might be able to print off our goods and products at home might be a long way off yet, the technology has already demonstrated an abundance of practical uses already. Not least, within the field of medicine.
3D Printing: Explaining the Technology
A new technology will thrive or decline based on its practical application: that is, what it is actually useful for. It is difficult to imagine any area of modern life that would not benefit from fully operational 3D printing technology. So, how does it work?
3D printing behaves a lot like a standard, ink jet printer that many people have at home. Instead of being filled with ink to produce two dimensional images, it is loaded with a solid powder or gel (usually plastic) that can be sprayed, one layer at a time, to build up a solid shape. A 3D printer essentially fabricates an object by creating a series of minute cross-sections of the complete object, which will harden and set into the final form.
Application in Medicine: Prosthetics
The technology is especially of use to modern medicine, and, when considering the role of 3D printing in healthcare, amongst the first ideas that will come to many people’s minds is its application in the area of prosthetics. The technology seems perfectly suited to this field and it is perhaps no surprise then that it is also one of the first areas where is has been put into practice: delivering quick, affordable, and almost infinitely adaptable components for use in prosthetics.
Cost is one of the most fundamental barriers for treatment, even today. But the use of 3D print technology has seen prosthetic limbs become affordable to virtually everyone. The most stark illustration of this is Australian schoolgirl Sydney Kendall who, at age 13, has received a fully robotic limb for $200. Before the use of 3D printing, such a limb would have been prohibitively expensive, at around $75,000.
3D printing does more though than reduce costs: it makes full customization a reality: from cosmetic choices of color, to size, shape, and individual design. It is this final point which is perhaps the key to explaining the crucial role of 3D printers in the future of medicine. Because, whilst aesthetic choices are a welcome bonus, it is the ability to reproduce bespoke, made-to-measure prosthetics at a low cost that makes this new generation technology so advantageous.
Application in Medicine: Implants
This latter point also opens the door to the possibility of 3D printing being employed in another way. In what could be the greatest breakthrough to date for the technology, surgeons may soon be able to benefit from custom-printed implants and components for use in surgery. From joint reconstruction for adults to splints and supports for delicate windpipe tissue in newborn babies, 3D printing has already allowed doctors to replicate specific body parts to a precise set of dimensions for use in patients’ operations.
A Future Revolution
As with any nascent technology, much of the work revolving around medical 3D printing remains in the research phase. For now, this means its real world applications are focused on replacement body parts and prosthetics. But the focus on research and development also allows for a rapid growth in techniques and new theories. One of the most exciting fields is the belief that one day 3D printing technology may be able to utilize the patient’s own cells, essentially “printing” organic matter for use in surgery, transplants and donation. If the stories of today seem fantastical, then what lies in store for the future of medicine could be all the more remarkable.
About the Author: This article was written by Nick Davison for Covance, a global leader in clinical research and medical trials.