You’ve probably seen the cool, space-age objects created by 3D-printing. Over the past few years we’ve seen dresses, shoes, art and more. But have you recognized the possible huge effect of 3D printing on healthcare?
Some truly inspiring things have been happening in the world of medicine thanks to this new technology. From prosthetics to organ transplants, 3D printing will no doubt change the healthcare landscape. It could shift the job market and create availability for new healthcare careers.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is 3D printing?
In layman’s terms, 3D printing is the process of building a 3D object from a digital model. 3D printers usually create objects by adding layer after layer of a specific material.
3D bioprinting means using biological material in the building process, which has the potential to construct living organs. Of course, there are still barriers to creating organs—like the lack of complex systems of veins and arteries. Even so, initial experiments are promising.
3D printers can also use other material to print—a drug-laced one, for example, to manufacture pills. This capability allows it to make a variety of different objects with many different uses.
And those are just a few of the ways 3D printing fits into medicine and healthcare.
Why is 3D printing beneficial?
New technology in healthcare is usually expensive when it’s first released. But 3D printing is exciting in part because it’s a relatively affordable process. And that has a lot to do with the way the printers layer the material. Because they print so precisely, there’s less cost to the materials, among other things. This could lead to more affordable prosthetics for the millions of people who experience loss of limbs around the world.
The ability to digitally design molds and other shapes is also a huge benefit. It could help prosthetics look and feel more natural. It could also help tailor designs to patients’ specific needs. For example, surgeons at Intermountain Medical Center needed to remove a tumor from a patient’s kidney, but it was in a complicated place. They were able to perform CT scans and print a model of the kidney. Due to the accuracy of the 3D print, the doctors were able to prep and plan a path for removal beforehand.
There are 3D implants being made for patients with specialized needs, as well. Ralph Mobbs, a neurosurgeon in Australia, recently 3D printed an exact replica of his patient’s top two vertebrae, the ones that support the head and allow it to rotate. Mobbs was then able to remove a tumor in this area. Without the implants, this procedure wouldn’t be possible, and the patient could have eventually become quadriplegic. Mobbs also had a replica of the patient’s anatomy 3D-printed, so that he could practice the procedure beforehand.
These instances just barely scratch the surface of what 3D printing could do.
What are the next steps?
While some benefits of 3D printing in healthcare are already in reach, others—like printing functional organs—are still years away. However, the healthcare industry has been quick to study and test ways in which the technology may expand in the future.
Even now, scientists and researches in Bristol have developed bio-ink from stem sells, which could be used to create organs and other body parts.
One day in the not too distant future, we might just find ourselves printing out bones, joints, organs and more.