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15 Ways in Which 3D Printers Can and Are Used in Medicine

3D printing is bringing us closer to the future than we could ever imagine. Perhaps, not the flying cars and hoverboards kind, but the life-saving kind. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a marvelous method of printing solid three-dimensional objects, layer by layer, using a digital blueprint. This technology has been in the process of development since the 1980s, and while it has been used in the past to create sculptures, entire houses, and even food, its potential uses in medicine are exponential. Here’s a quick peek into the present uses of 3D printing in medicine and what the future holds!

1. Medical Models

American and Chinese researchers have been using to-scale and accurate 3D printed models of malignant and cancerous tumors to better understand how these tumors develop and spread, and to determine how to create anti-cancer drugs to combat the effects of these tumors.

These models can also be used to plan and prepare for risky surgeries, as was the case in India, where a 3D printed model helped doctors at Jawaharlal Institute of Medical Research in Visakhapatnam plan a surgery on a 4-year-old girl with an overgrown skull.


2. Medical Equipment 

incredible life-saving things in medicine that can be done using 3-D printing, medical equipment printed

In certain less fortunate countries, obtaining good quality medical equipment can be difficult. A 3D printer can make it more viable for poverty-stricken countries to print their own medical equipment. Such was the case with iLabs/Haiti, a result of a partnership between Haiti Communitere, The Blue Marble Movement and KIDmob, which assisted in the purchase of the first two 3D printers in the country. They have since been able to print their own umbilical cord clamps, as well as finger splints and casts. 


3. Tailor-Made Sensors 

Using scans of animal hearts, scientists and researchers in St. Louis, Missouri’s Washington University, printed 3D models of the heart, around which stretchable silicon electronics were wrapped. These minute electronic sensors, embedded in the silicon could then be peeled off and attached to actual live human hearts, which can detect oxygenation levels, temperature, and heart strain.

The next step in this process would be to create multiple sensors that also have the capability of measuring acidic conditions and detecting blocked arteries.  


4. Facial Reconstruction and Custom Implants

In 2014, a motorcyclist in Wales received numerous injuries in an accident that resulted in the fracture of his skull, nose, jaw and cheekbones. Thanks to developments in the use of 3D printing in medicine, the surgical team at Morriston Hospital created custom surgical guides and implants to perform the surgery and fix the implants to hold the fractured bones in place.

With the use of this cutting edge technology, which was unlike any that had been used by this medical team in the past, not only were the patient's injuries able to be repaired, but his face was able to be reconstructed to hide all such injuries.  


5. Patient Matched Devices

Much like the sensors and medical instruments that can be constructed by 3D printers, which can be made over and over again following an identical blueprint, some devices may be printed in a manner that is specific to the individual patient, that is, patient-matched.

These devices don’t fall under the specified FDA regulations for 3D printed medical devices, nor are they subject to FDA review. To learn more about the creation of such custom-designed devices, you can refer to the FDA-issued Custom Device Exemptions guidance

6. Low-Cost High-Quality Prosthetics 

Because of the rigorous and time-consuming nature of creating traditional prosthetics, they can cost a significant sum. This essentially restricts the persons who can purchase them to only those having significant economic means. 3D printing may be the solution to this problem. Another issue with traditional prosthetics is that the delicateness of the prosthetic parts themselves does not lend itself to any modifications.

Researchers at the University of Toronto who created cheap and customizable prosthetics in a short period of time in collaboration with Autodesk Research and CBM Canada. Organizations like Not Impossible Labs, Robohand and E-Nable have been known to hand over 3D printers to countries with high populations of amputees from war, such as Sudan, and train them in the printing of inexpensive patient-specific prosthetic limbs and fitting of the same. 


7. Building Tissues Using Blood Vessels

Before printing tissues and organs, it is vital to have a working vascular system, i.e., a system of blood vessels within an organ allowing it to pump blood and perform its bodily functions. Researchers at various significant institutes, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University have been working on different methods of bioprinting functioning blood vessels using soluble materials, such as ink and sugar.

These materials are used to create the structure of blood vessels and are then interwoven with skin cells and other living material to create a functioning blood supply, so these vascular systems can, in turn, support 3D printed organ and tissue functions. 


8. Bone

Professor Susmita Bose of Washington State University’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, as well as fellow researchers, have discovered a way to utilize a 3D printer to make a thick bone-like structure, almost identical in appearance and material to bone.

This structure is of use in dental work, orthopedic procedures and can also act as scaffolding in fractured parts of the body on which new bones may grow. This particular material also dissolves as the new bone grows in its place, and leaves no ill-effects on the body after. In time, it is believed that this technology will be developed such that custom replacement bone tissue may be created in this manner.


9. Ear Cartilage and Hearing Aids

Researchers at Cornell University have discovered a new and unique use for 3D photos and models. Associate professor of biomedical engineering, Lawrence Bonassar has been using these 3D prints of human ears to create perfect ear molds, which are then filled with a gel suspended in collagen.

This gel contains bovine cartilage cells and the collagen holds the shape of the ear in place as the bovine cells grow to fill it. Princeton University has taken this methodology a step further and directly created their own 3D printed collagen ear, which comes equipped with built-in electronic sensors that can increase hearing. This is believed to also have many implications for the creation of 3D printed hearing aids.  


10. Drugs

A chemist employed at the University of Glasgow, Lee Cronin, is seen here giving a revolutionary TED Talk on a previously unknown method of using 3D printers. Noting that most drugs are created by chemists who break down certain molecules and combine them with others to create the necessary drug, using its molecular structure and a specifically designed 3D printer, we could potentially print or get printed medical drugs.

It would require a system that utilized both hardware and software to comprehend the biological and chemical necessities of each patient so that each drug could be designed accordingly, and the blueprint of each drug could then be sold to be printed by the patient themselves. Mr. Cronin’s vision is not too far from reality, as Louisiana Technical University has already begun 3D printing devices that are used for delivering medicine for bone cancer patients.    


11. Heart Valve

A 3D printer was first used by a professor at Cornell University named Jonathan Butcher to print a functioning heart valve, which has since been in the stages of testing on animals. Doctors at Tel Aviv University have gone one step further and printed a heart made from human tissue.

The heart itself is extremely minute, but unlike previous 3D printed hearts, which were non-functioning shells, it maintains a system of valves and blood vessels, making it a potentially functioning heart. At this point, it is still in the phase of animal testing, but the development of this method of 3D printing hearts shows many possibilities for progress in the future. 


12. Synthetic Skin

3D printed synthetic skin was first created and brought to light by one professor James Yoo at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in the United States. After scanning the wound, the 3-D printer developed by Dr.Yoo and his team was able to directly print new synthetic skin onto the wounded areas of burn victims. This technology has also been studied in detail for its military application in treating wounded soldiers. Researchers at Carlos III University of Madrid in Spain took this process to the next step and have discovered a way of bioprinting proper human skin, using the biological components of each individual.  


13. Intervertebral Discs

The intervertebral disc is a part of our physiology located in our backs that is often the cause of frequent backaches while sitting or doing ordinary movements, and this pain is usually caused by the degeneration of this intervertebral disc. Dr. Lawrence Bonassar, of Cornell University, and the same brain behind the creation of ear cartilage using 3D printers, has also determined that punctured or broken intervertebral discs can be brought back to their original strength using 3D printers that could accurately print and inject a bio-ink made from stem cells into the patient’s broken disc, along with a healthy dose of collagen to hold the cells in place until their formation is complete.

In Australia, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology also created a titanium spinal implant to save a patient with a misshapen vertebra using a 3D printer, which resulted in the straightening of the patient’s spine.  


14. Organs

Much like the heart printed by researchers at Tel Aviv University, Organovo, one of the major organizations doing research into the use of 3D printers for creating human tissue, has been working on developing long-lasting 3D printed liver cells. These liver cells mimic human liver cells exactly and are being used for testing drugs.

Many synthetic organs greatly resembling the real thing have also been printed, which react much like real organs do, but cannot yet be integrated with human anatomy. They are still used in surgical training. While a major hurdle in bioprinting entire functioning organs is the presence of a fully-functioning vascular system, major institutions like Stanford University, University of Sydney, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have noted making significant discoveries in the creation of such capillary systems.

Along with the improvements in 3D Printing technology spearheaded by Organovo and similar organizations like Printer-Inks, which is based in the UK, there are chances that within the decade, 3D printed organs will be a real possibility, making organ transplants a much more viable treatment. 


15. Cranium Replacement          

All across the world, from the Netherlands to Slovakia and China, 3D printers are being used to save the lives of people who have suffered from skull fractures or various forms of brain damage. At the University Medical Center in Utrecht, a 22-year-old patient had the entire top portion of her cranium replaced with a 3D printed plastic replica.

A titanium replacement was similarly made for a man that suffered from skull fractures in China, as well as one in Slovakia. In the United States, an unidentified man had 75% of his skull, which had been fractured for unknown reasons, replaced with a 3D printed replica produced by Oxford Performance Materials (OPM). It is believed that this same technology can be used in bone replacements and will drastically cut down the cost of major orthopedic surgeries. 

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