We have all heard about some amazing examples of 3D printing application in design and prototype development, car and aircraft manufacturing, even in space missions, but one field that shows the most promising results is its utilization in medicine. Scientists have already managed to print out the skin, advanced prosthetic limbs, bones and spline fragments, organs,…
3D printers are not entirely new technology, although it was only in the last couple of years that it came to be widely used, mainly due to the lower costs of this technology. Yet for a better 3D printer you should allocate more money (prices of those of average quality vary between 1,200 and $ 2,000, while the top quality ones are still costing around $ 200,000 or more), but this is about to change very soon – patents on superb 3D printers are expiring this year, and China is already prepared to start their mass-production, which is why we can expect them to be at a price-range of a classic 2D printer.
3D printers are one of those technologies with great potential to revolutionize medicine. And these are just a few examples of the incredible use of 3D printing in medicine.
Printed human skin
The current process of transplanting the skin, the largest human organ, with burns victims requires painful removal of skin from undamaged areas of the patient’s body and grafting it on the part of the body affected by burns. But scientists at the University of Toronto have developed a system for making “Bio-Ink” of skin cells. Scientists claim that their printer can produce skin tissue that costs 1,000 times less than the current price.
Researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine are working on a project that will completely eliminate the need for classical skin transplantation. They have devised a method in which the camera scans the wound, then creates a 3D image, and finally, the skin is printed directly on the patient’s body. In their experiments with mice, scientists have been able to treat skin injuries in record time, and they hope that this method will work just as effectively in humans. 3D printed skin not only significantly speeds up the recovery, it also significantly reduces the risk of infection, which is currently the biggest problem with skin transplantation.
Scientists at Kyoto University Graduate School of Medicine are already applying 3D printed titanium bones and spine implants in humans. Not only that these implants are easier to obtain, that they cost significantly less, but they are superior in every aspect to other replacement solutions.
Researchers at Cornell University are about to make a step further. In their trials with rats, they are incorporating stem cells in their spinal implants. They have come up with two methods to treat punctured disks. First one is designed to repair disks by ‘filling them with stem cell based collagen gel’ which results in stem cells adoption to surrounding tissue, while the second one is meant for patients whose disks are beyond repair, in which 3D printed disk is inserted in place of the damaged one, allowing it to gradually integrate with the surrounding vertebrae.
Printed prosthetic limbs
Advanced prosthetic limbs have gone a long way in recent years, but high costs of advanced prosthetic make them inaccessible to most people. However, with 3D printers, the future looks brighter. A cheaper alternative is already under development, and one of the main culprits is Easton LaChappelle, an eighteen-year-old from Colorado, who used free online resources and low-cost 3D printers to develop advanced robotic prosthetic arm. At that time he was only seventeen, which granted him employment in NASA. The final product costs astonishing $250, or under $500 with accompanying electronics, compared to $10,000+ that it usually costs.
3D printed human tissue will allow scientists to test new drugs and vaccines, without the need to experiment on living people or animals.
When it comes to fully functional human organs, other than human skin, some success has already been achieved with 3D printed ears, blood vessels, bladders and uteri, but the most fascinating project is that of researchers at the University of Queensland who are working with Organovo, a San Diego based bio-printing company, trying to print human kidneys. According to Professor Melisa Little, head of the research team, kidneys are” much more complex organ than the liver, the pancreas or the heart.”
If they succeed in their endeavor, it will be the dawn of a new era in medicine. With exception of our brains, in ten or so years, we’ll pretty much be able to print ourselves.