Author(s): Katie Taylor
The increasingly widespread use of 3D printing has inspired creators to make everything from machine parts to sugar shapes and, of course, miniature figurines of themselves. The technology offers a wealth of customisable solutions to common and difficult-to-treat problems alike, and looks set to transform many aspects of healthcare.
In 2003, bioengineer Thomas Boland filed a patent for "bioprinting" using a 2D inkjet machine and a reservoir of cells. Surgeons are now using 3D printing to create new bones and medical structures — including cranial plates, vertebrae and windpipes — that fit perfectly into their patients, and printed orthopaedic aids like the Osteoid cast claim to accelerate healing times. The materials have benefits themselves: printing in thermoplastic polyetherketoneketone encourages bone growth, for example, and scientists in Warsaw have developed a coating that prevents the common problem of bacterial colonies on medical implants.
Printing can also be used to visualise and plan tricky operations. Physicians at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston use computerised tomography (CT) scanning and 3D printing to create models of patients' heads to prepare for a facial transplant procedures. Use of a physical representation is said to provide "superior" preoperative data and reduce time in surgery.
Healthcare professionals aren't stopping at structural printing. Organovo offers 3D-printed liver and kidney tissues for laboratory testing purposes (and is teaming up with L'Oreal for printed skin), and researchers at the University of Texas have developed a genetic "glue" for 3D manufacturing with organic materials. Medical technology firm TeVio BioDevices even hopes that 3D printing with patients' cells will help it to offer a "better nipple" to those undergoing breast reconstruction following a mastectomy — something it cites as psychologically important for recovery.
Biomedical engineering through 3D printing is revolutionising the world of prosthetics, too. They're an essential piece of kit for those missing anything from a leg to an ear, but often fit badly and are far from fashionable. However, 3D manufacturing is being used to address these problems — scanning techniques consider the patient's musculature for a more comfortable prosthesis, and the printing process allows for beautiful, bespoke and affordable pieces of wearable art. It's even possible to make these parts from home, widening the accessibility of the treatment, and companies like e-Nable already pair tech-equipped volunteers with those in need. Smart printed models are the latest step, with Exiii's Handiii myoelectric robotic arm an example of a sub-$300 prosthetic that's customizable and can be controlled by a smartphone.
Technology is personalizing healthcare — wearables, the Internet of things and the ever-growing power of smartphones are contributing to developments. There are a number of challenges for 3D printing manufacturers to address, including the long-term effect of some materials on patients, the ethical issues of using living tissue and the regulation of printed products. However, the medical 3D printing industry is forecast to be worth more than $4 billion by 2018, and Carbon3D's Terminator-inspired technique could make the process 25 to 100 times faster than it is now (the company's CEO Joseph DeSimone talks you through it here). The advantages of 3D are being realized from all angles.