During the last few years, the healthcare industry has been very responsive to many different technological trends, such as machine learning or predictive analytics. Another strong innovation making an impact on the sector's technology landscape is 3D printing.
This exciting technology might soon make it possible for providers to offer customized healthcare solutions to patients and assist doctors in delivering care. When applied in the medical context, 3D printing applies in areas such as product customization, prototyping, manufacturing, and research. The potential areas of applications are very broad and extend past the general medical practice and research to include dental practice, prostheses, and surgical preparation.
In this article, we take a deeper look at how healthcare can benefit from 3D printing and what potential use cases we are going to see develop in the near future.
3D printing in medicine – 10 key applications
- Prostheses and braces
- Reducing the cost of medical care
- Replacement tissue and organs
- Surgical preparation
- Breast reconstruction
- Dental applications
- Pharmacology and medication dosage
- Medical tools and devices
Prostheses and braces
One of the most interesting applications of 3D printing in healthcare is the opportunities it brings for the design and manufacturing of braces and prosthetic devices. For example, a San Francisco-based medical 3D printing company UNYQ created a prophetic leg socket and is now busy building other customized prosthetic devices.
Another American 3D printing company ActivArmor has recently partnered with a number of professional sports teams to deliver unique devices. The company uses high-temperature thermosetting plastics to create devices that can be used to accommodate scars, burns, incisions, and postsurgical hardware.
Reducing the cost of medical care
Here's another inspiring use case of 3D printing. A startup from the Pennsylvania State University College of Engineering called Kijenzi uses 3D printing technology to help in building adequate healthcare facilities in Kenya. The initial idea was using portable 3D printers to quickly create medical equipment such as vacuum pumps, braces, and clamps at a low cost. However, once the team started to work with facilities in Kenya, their focus shifted towards increasing the accessibility of 3D printable files to make the technology more readily available in remote facilities.
Another interesting application of the technology is from a team at the Michigan Technological University that used 3D printing to create adaptive aids for patients suffering from arthritis at a reduced cost. The devices are designed to help patients perform routine activities such as opening doors or dressing at a cost well below the current alternatives.
Replacement tissue and organs
Another exciting area where 3D printing is causing a revolution is in printing tissue and replacement organs.
For example, a team from Pennsylvania State University developed a 3D printing method that allows creating tissue building blocks with micropores. Such artificially manufactured porous structure allows nutrients and other fluids to circulate in the body. They offer great potential for lab-generated tissues containing black blood vessels.
A group of researchers from Tel Aviv recently created the world's first 3D printed heart with vascularization. The team used the patient's own cells, together with other organic materials. Until now, researchers were only able to print cardiac tissues without any blood vessels. That's why the team's 3D printed heart marks such a breakthrough in the use of this technology.
Another interesting project comes from the Netherlands, where a company partnered with Maastricht University to create kidney tissue for scientific testing. Here's another inspiring story. A team of surgeons at a Bulgarian hospital replaced a rib that contained a tumor with a 3D printed prosthetic to save their patient's life.
Another area where 3D printing is causing an impact on medicine is surgical preparation. Researchers are now experimenting with 3D printing used to replicate patient-specific organs that can be used for practice before operations take place. This holds great potential for the most complicated and challenging operations. Such an application is far more accurate and prepares doctors much better than the materials they use today, such as CT scans, MRIs, and X-rays. Ultimately, the method could accelerate procedures and minimize patient trauma.
Where could such technology come in handy? Consider operations such as spinal repair, heart and vital organ transplants, scanning and repairing fractures or cracks, as well as birth complication operations. Moreover, by replicating organs for transplants, doctors will be able to assess their compatibility for use more accurately.
Equipped with such models, surgeons will be able to physically handle and visualize the anatomical model, which is specific to the patients. That way, they will learn the patient's anatomy from multiple angles and better anticipate what to expect once the procedure begins. With this approach, the likelihood of a successful recovery is much higher. Simulation and preparation, with the help of 3D printing, also promises to lower the costs and save time.
A French company teamed up with doctors from a hospital in Lille, France, to develop a brand-new method that could bring massive benefits to women who need breast implants.
Instead of betting on the traditional silicone implants, the company uses another breast reconstruction technique: the fat transfer technique or lipofilling. However, this method comes with a risk. If doctors inject too much fat into the breast area, it might become reabsorbed by the body over time. As a result, the patient will be forced to undergo another surgical procedure.
To avoid the fat becoming absorbed by the body, the team created a 3D printed shell with a lace shape. The prosthesis is bioresorbable, so it will be absorbed by the body just like stitches. It allows for a natural reconstruction and can be customized to match the unique needs of the patient. Most importantly, it allows patients to go through the procedure only once without having to redo the surgery later.
One of the most exciting applications of 3D printing in the medical field would be to create all sorts of prosthetic devices. Traditionally manufactured prostheses are usually very expensive and very often prove uncomfortable for the amputee. 3D printing is here to help.
Researchers are now working on designing comfortable prostheses that match the patient's needs and are cost-effective. There are currently many projects going on that aim to develop 3D printed prosthetic arms and legs. We're bound to see the rise of such products on the market in the near future.
When it comes to 3D printing in dentistry, there are many different ways that technology can help, ranging from general dentistry to orthodontics. Various dental areas currently integrate 3D printing in making customized and accurate braces, castable crowns, dental bridges, dental restorations, and denture frameworks and bases.
By implementing 3D printing, dentists can offer convenient products at a lower cost and minimize the wait time since no mold is required to create the feature. Another key aspect of 3D printing in dentistry is its relatively easy adoption in the context of a laboratory, dental office, or clinic.
Pharmacology and medication dosage
Another interesting application of 3D printing in healthcare might lead to simplifying pharmacology and drug administration. Imagine a patient who suffers from multiple ailments and needs to take many different pills every day. A simple solution could be possible with the 3D printed pill that houses various medications in a single pill, but each equipped with a different release time.
This idea is called polypill, and it has already been tested for diabetic patients.
The application handles issues such as medication dosage and solves problems deriving from diverse drug interactions. For patients, a polypill would mean the elimination of exhaustive monitoring of drug intake, especially when their medications have different schedules. 3D printed pills would also be cost-effective, making the technology more accessible to health programs in poor, developing countries.
Medical tools and devices
As expected, many surgical tools and medical devices can be 3D printed as well. In fact, some of the most common surgical tools that are now being 3D printed around the world: from scalpel handles and clamps to forceps and other tools. The technology can produce such tools in a more sterile way and at a much lower cost than the stainless-steel tool equivalents. Thanks to 3D printing, surgeons will be able to quickly replace their tools as needed.
Bioprinting is not the fastest type of printing, but 3D printing of tissues and organs offers an incredible potential for medicine. During the bioprinting process, researchers use bio-inks, a material that allows the fusion and proliferation of all living cells.
In fact, maturation is an essential part of the process. The cells need to grow and proliferate, so the benefits of this application aren't available instantly. Bio-inks are essentially hydrogel biomaterials that provide support to the cell while it produces its own natural extracellular matrix. Bioprinting brings a wide range of possible applications. For example, doctors will be able to print real human skin to test new drugs without having to test them on animals.
3D printing in medicine is an exciting area that is bound to become increasingly popular among healthcare professionals. By introducing 3D printing to the applications mentioned above, providers can deliver more comfort for the patient, help doctors in their jobs, and reduce the costs of healthcare. The precision and low cost of 3D printing pave the way for a more intelligent approach to healthcare.
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