3D Printing in Medicine Today
The most important area in which 3D printing is being implemented today is in medical applications. Currently 3D printing is used in medicine for prosthetic limbs, bone and dental implants, dental crowns and contact lenses. In fact at around the time of writing, there are an estimated 10 million 3D printed hearing aids and 3 quarters of a million dental implants plugged into peoples heads right now.
3D printing works really well with body parts because of the ability 3D printing gives to designers to personalise and cost effectively custom manufacture individual items to individual people. We all come in different shapes and sizes and we all have different preferences for the way we wish to appear. 3D printed body parts allows us to decide exactly what fit and look we want instead of having to choose from a much more limited set of alternatives.
The process to create a 3D human body parts is similar to many other 3D manufacturing processes. The hosting body area or body part to be replaced is scanned with a 3D scanner. The scan image is converted into a 3D design file on a PC and modified to suit the patient's requirements. The final image data is then sent to a 3D printer which then builds the part, layer by layer until the completed item is formed and then plugged in or bolted on to the happy patient.
The potential application areas for 3D printed medical parts are vast. Warzones and battlefields are obvious candidates for 3D printing prosthesis. Soldiers and civilian casualties could be repaired on-site rather than having to travel thousands of miles to receive replacement limbs.
For those who are more fashion conscious, limbs can be 3D printed in any colour or have any texture or pattern applied to them. It is no longer necessary for someone to have a false leg that looks like it's been borrowed from a crash test dummy.
In 2012, a team of surgeons successfully built and implanted a 3D printed ceramic coated, titanium replacement lower jawbone into the face of an 83 year old oral cancer patient. Within hours of the operation the patient was able to talk and drink soup.
Other uses for 3D printing in medicine today are for training purposes. Replica bodies or body sections can be produced using materials similar in look and feel to real tissue. Students are able to use these as 3d printed cadavers in order to practice dissections or organ transplants. You can probably imagine how difficult it is to acquire real cadavers matching the needs of a particular class. With 3D printing the cadaver can be made available on-demand with no concern of the body decaying.
The Future of 3D Printing in Medicine
Researchers have been working on techniques to engineer 3D printed living tissue and organs. Professor Jeremy Mao of Columbia University has already achieved successful 3D printed stem cell seeded bone implant surgery on rabbits. Also research at Washington State University has lead to the creation of 3D printed bone tissue which has the ability to grow and mature under lab conditions.
As amazing as these experiments may sound it is still early days. Scientists are making progress towards 3D printing replacement hearts and valves, kidneys and livers, skin, bone and cartilage all which will within the next few decades be available for treating patients worldwide.