The potential of 3D printing in healthcare is inspiring some of the finest minds in biomedical engineering to take their research into the technology to new levels, as Jessica Twentyman reports.
In recent weeks, 3D printing has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. A furious row has raged in the US around gun control, after the State Department gave permission for an organisation called Defense Distributed to release instructions online for building 3D guns, which would be undetectable by security scanners in airports.
Facebook, meanwhile, has released a statement to the effect that sharing instructions on how to print firearms using 3D printers would be considered a breach of its community standards.
But what about the ability of 3D printing to heal, rather than harm?
3D printing is already used in healthcare, in order to create vascular stents, dental implants, and prosthetic limbs, in situations where conventional medical devices may fall short or fail to meet the individual needs of some patients.
According to a July 2018 forecast from market analyst firm IDC, healthcare will be the second largest industry (after manufacturing) to use 3D printing this year, with a total spend of nearly $1.3 billion.
IDC analyst Marianne D’Aquila says, “The healthcare industry is also poised to double its share of spending through 2021, as the benefits of cost-effective, customised printing continue to be realised.”
Today, real possibilities are emerging around using the technology to replicate human tissue and even whole organs. So where is the blue-sky thinking on 3D printing in healthcare focused?
Here are just a handful of the research projects currently underway:
1. Spinal injuries
At the University of Minnesota, engineers and medical researchers have created a 3D-printed device that might one day help patients with long-term spinal cord injuries to regain some functions.
This ‘scaffolding’ made of silicon serves as a platform for specialised cells that are then 3D printed on top of it. This guide would then be surgically implanted into the injured area of a patient’s spinal cord, to serve as a type of bridge between the living nerve cells above and below it.
The hope is that this would both alleviate the patient’s pain and help restore muscle, bowel, and bladder control.
2. Joint damage
At Central Queensland University in Australia, researcher Dr Padraig Strappe envisages a surprising use for a byproduct of the crocodile meat industry, which already supplies skin for Italian fashion houses, meat for Australian diners, and bones for dog food.
The cartilage of these beasts, he believes, could be used to assist human adult stem cells, taken from fat tissue or bone marrow, to become cartilage. Once crocodile cartilage is added to these cells, a 3D printer could be used to bio-print cartilage explants that might be injected into damaged human joints to promote their healing.
Says Dr Strappe: “We hope that might promote cartilage repair for treatment of joint injury or arthritis, which is a big challenge – and becoming more so in elderly populations.”
3. Heart surgery
At Stanford University in California, researchers are using 3D-printed tools to design cardiac-mapping catheters – devices used by surgeons to reveal electrical activity in the heart and identify disturbances.
A cardiac patient would undergo a scan that records an exact image file of their heart, which is then fed into a 3D printer in order to create a cardiac-mapping catheter that fits precisely to “the natural geometry and anatomy of that specific patient,” according to research team member Kevin Cyr.
Once implanted, the catheter transmits data to a computer to generate a recording of electrical activity patterns. These produce a heat map that doctors can use to identify the areas of the heart that require treatment.
4. Bone regrowth
At New York University, researchers have used 3D printers to create chemically coated ceramic implants that guide the regrowth of missing bone.
These steadily dissolving implants have already been used on lab animals, and the scientists involved claim that their novel ceramics more closely resemble real bone shapes and composition than other experimental implants.
“Our latest study results move us closer to clinical trials and potential bone implants for children living with skull deformations since birth, as well as for veterans seeking to repair damaged limbs,” says biomedical engineer, Paulo Coelho.
5. Lung disease
At the VA Ann Arbor Health Care System in Michigan, part of the Department of Veteran Affairs, scientists are working to create a 3D-printed artificial lung to help former soldiers affected by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – one of the most prevalent and costly ailments affecting the veteran population.
According to Dr Joseph Potkay, a biomedical engineer, it’s the first time that high-resolution 3D polymer printing has been used to create artificial lungs, complete with three-dimensional blood-flow networks that are compatible with living tissue and are capable of providing short- and long-term respiratory support.
Says Dr Potkay: “The flexibility in design afforded by 3D printing gives us more freedom, and thus the ease to build artificial lungs with a small size, and pressure drops that are compatible for operation with the body’s natural pressures.”
Internet of Business says
Despite the challenges facing healthcare practitioners today – falling per capita spending in real terms, austerity policies, ageing populations, and more – these are exciting times for the sector in technology terms.
The confluence of a range of new technologies, including 3D printing, healthtech wearables, and artificial intelligence, promises to both transform treatments and cut the costs associated with them, moving the work of care professionals towards a more proactive and predictive regime, earlier detection of diseases, personalised care, and bespoke aids.
As Internet of Business reported recently, 3D printing has other applications in healthcare, too, such as in the field of visualisation and hyper-accurate modelling of body parts from patient scans.
For more on the latest on digital transformation in healthcare attend our Internet of Health conference, 25-26 September, The Netherlands.