3D printing works by converting 3D blueprints using CAD, or computer-aided design software, into (usually plastic) models. Although 3D printing is generally linked to private hobbyists, it has been utilized in the health industry since the early 2000s. 3D printing has many current and projected uses in medicine, with new breakthroughs being made every year.
Organ and Tissue Replacement
Researchers predict that 3D technology will soon be able to replicate human tissue, organs, and bones, which can then be transplanted into the human body. Currently, the demand for human organs for transplant exceeds the supply, and people are dying as they wait for donations. In the future, 3D technology may allow medical engineers to grow, multiply and graft stem cells onto scaffolds in order to build new tissue and organs from scratch. Since these cells would be taken directly from the transplant patient, there would be little risk of the host rejecting the tissue, and no need to take immunosuppressants to prevent the immune system from attacking the transplanted organ.
Prosthetics and Implants
Medical engineers are currently able to translate x-ray, MRI, and CT scans from digital files to 3D models in order to rapidly create customized prosthetics and surgical implants. The range of application is wide, from precise dental and spinal implants to affordable, personalized prosthetic limbs. In the past, 3D printing has been successfully applied to mandibular and skull implants. 3D printing is also used to manufacture 99% of hearing aids. 3D-printed hearing aids are form-fitted, using anatomical measurements of each recipient’s uniquely shaped ear canal, and thus are more effective than traditional hearing aids.
3D-printed models are superior to flat MRI and CT scans, allowing physicians to visualize their patient’s anatomy in three dimensions. This is especially helpful in surgery, allowing surgeons to study and simulate surgery on an accurate representation of their patient’s body before making any cuts. This is especially important for neurosurgeons, who work on a particularly complex and delicate part of the human body. 3D printed anatomical models are also useful for training medical students as a cheaper and more readily-available alternative to cadavers.
With 3D printing, it’s possible for medical tools to be created using plastics rather than costlier stainless steel. This way, medical tools can become more widely available in developing countries. In 2010, around two billion individuals were recorded to have little to no access to life-saving surgical procedures. The rapid growth of 3D printing technology and a potential drop in cost as 3D printers become more commercially available could save lives in developing countries in the future.
3D printing technology can potentially be used to create customized drugs with precise control over dosage. Currently, drug-producing technology only allows drugs to be manufactured in large, uniform batches. 3D printing can make it possible to create complex, personalized medicine based on individual profiles. This would increase the effectiveness of drugs and decrease the risk of adverse side-effects.