by Sydney Stone
You may think of 3D printing as being somewhat futuristic, but the technology is already here and currently being used to produce everything from jewelry to prosthetics and even cars. Startups focused on 3D printing and software development that utilizes this technology are experiencing a huge surge in both funding and overall demand.
The concept of 3D printing (also referred to as additive manufacturing) actually originated in the early 1980s when Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute published the first account of a working photopolymer rapid prototyping system. Two years later, Chuck Hall invented stereolithography (SLA) technology. SLA uses a 3D model and a laser to etch out a photopolymer prototype. The first thing Hall ever printed with this technology was a small eye wash cup.
Since then, there have been numerous breakthroughs in several industries thanks to the advancement of 3D printing. Nowhere is this technology having more of an impact than in healthcare. Here are three ways 3D printing is changing the world of medicine as we know it.
Perhaps the area that 3D printing is having the most impact when it comes to health and medicine is prosthetics.
Ekso Bionics has actually created a complete exoskeleton using 3D printing that is now being used by spinal cord injury and stroke patients. The EksoGT model is installed in over 200 clinics worldwide and has helped SCI and stroke victims take more than 86 million steps!
In the past, prosthetic limbs were mass-produced with little customization. The use of 3D laser printers can now deliver prosthetics that are designed specifically for each individual patient. And because the process is so much less expensive, people who may have never been able to receive a prosthetic device before due to the costs now have a chance at a better quality of life.
2. Organ Transplants
3D printing is set to totally disrupt the future of heart transplant surgery. Last year, developers from ETH Zurich debuted a 3D printed artificial heart. Made of silicone, the 3D heart is the first entirely soft heart ever created. It is currently being tested and refined to see how well it will function as compared to a real heart.
Just recently, 3D printing helped to save a two-year old child’s life through a kidney transplant. The technology was used to create a 3D model of the child’s abdomen in order to successfully orchestrate the transplant of his father’s kidney.
On a (much) smaller level, 3D printing is being utilized to create organoids with stem cells. These organoids will be able to grow inside the body to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s and schizophrenia in the near future.
3. Skin Grafts for Burn Victims
There is now a 3D printer that can actually print human skin.
Scientists from the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M), CIEMAT (Center for Energy, Environmental and Technological Research), Hospital General Universitario Gregorio Marañón, and the BioDan Group, developed a 3D bioprinter that produces human skin. The printer uses a combination of plasma and other skin particles to create human skin that can be used for burn victims and other types of medical and cosmetic procedures.
Not only will the ability to create human skin from 3D printing be able to create a better match for the patient, but it will also lessen the stress of having to go through a skin graft from their own body.
With medical costs at an all-time high, 3D printing may be the breakthrough needed to make healthcare more affordable for everyone.
When you consider the fact that the average cost of a kidney transplant is around $330,000 and a 3D printer costs around $10,000, you start to see the real value that this technology can provide to the healthcare industry and the people who will ultimately benefit from this kind of advancement.
Of course, it’s not all about the cost savings. The quality of life enhancements for amputees, paraplegics, transplant recipients, burn victims, and others will increase in ways that simply can’t be measured by dollars and cents.