3D printing: a revolution for modern medicine

A recent news article covered the amazing story of a 2 week old baby that survived complicated heart surgery with the help of 3D printing. Using an MRI scan, an exact copy of the child’s heart was made to give surgeons the unique opportunity to study the organ, which was riddled with holes and structured unusually, to develop a detailed surgery strategy which saved the baby’s life.

3D printers use a process of ‘additive manufacturing’ to produce objects layer by layer and are able to produce complex, custom made shapes. The process is already widely used for body parts including teeth, hearing aids and prosthetic limbs. This personalised mechanism cuts the time taken to manufacture traditional products, made out of wood or plastic, and gives an alternative to ill-fitting prosthetics.

Implants inside the body can also prove to be highly functional. For instance, Doctors of Michigan’s Mott Children’s Hospital have saved the lives of two babies since 2012 by using 3D printed plastic splints that were inserted into their windpipes. The birth defect known as tracheobronchomalacia, causes weakened airways that collapse causing the baby to suffocate. Based on CT scans, a custom fit splint was designed, printed and eventually implanted into the babies. The device is eventually absorbed by the body so that the airways can stay open by themselves.

In addition to this scientists can now load 3D printers with human cells and print living tissue in a process called bioprinting. This could be revolutionary to transplants in the future; patients wouldn’t die waiting for donor organs and their immune systems wouldn’t reject them. Bioprinting organs works by creating a plastic mould that can be covered in human cells or the printer can jet the cells out into a collagen-based gel. Once the cells have grown, the organ is placed into the body and the mould disintegrates, meaning that in children the tissues would grow with the body. Scientists are already using printed tissue for research and drugs testing, and printed windpipes may not be too far away. These advances have the ability to revolutionise medicine and personalise healthcare in a way which has never been seen before.

References

Boren, Z. (2014) 3D Printed heart saves baby’s life as medical technology leaps ahead, The independent, Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/3d-printed-heart-saves-babys-life-as-medical-technology-leaps-ahead-9776931.html”>http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/3d-printed-heart-saves-babys-life-as-medical-technology-leaps-ahead-9776931.html

Collins, S. (2014) Will 3-D Printing Revolutionize Medicine? WebMD health news, Available at: http://www.webmd.com/news/breaking-news/20140723/3d-printing?page=4″>http://www.webmd.com/news/breaking-news/20140723/3d-printing?page=4

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