There have been many mind-blowing breakthroughs in medicine this year from health apps to “wearables” but the number one breakthrough to revolutionize medicine both now and how it’s practiced in the future in my opinion is…. 3-D printing!
A printer, you say? How can a printer revolutionize medicine?
Picture an ink jet printer that creates body parts in the form of a heart valve, arm prosthesis, finger, hip joint, tooth instead of just a piece of paper with words copied onto it. Futuristic? NO! It’s here!
- Product can be customized to an exact duplicate of a lost body part
- Production of the body part is significantly cheaper than the way it has been done (as in a mechanical arm) Children who previously could not afford a prosthetic arm will have access to one (cost is only a fraction of types currently being made in the lab. e.g. $200 instead of $70,000)
- More complex shapes can be created than traditional manufacturing
- Saves manufacture time- done in minutes (fingers made in 7 minutes) (a dentist can print a dental crown from a scan right at the chair site instead of a week by a dental lab)
- No rejection from the plastic or metal if it doesn’t come in contact with blood flow
- adapts to body fluids for a more comfortable fit
How does it work?
The printer gets information and commands not from documents but rather from an MRI or CAT scan of body parts. The object is created layer upon layer in plastic or metal.
3-D printed plastics have already been implanted into bodies with success.
1) Surgeons at University of Michigan’s Mott Children’s Hospital have saved the lives of two babies by implanting 3-D-printed plastic splints into their windpipes. They are fully functional, based on CT scans of the infant airways and printing custom-fit splints.
2) Cranial plugs filled holes drilled in the skull during brain surgery. Plates can be made to replace skull sections lost from trauma or cancer.
3) Printed hip and knee replacements are being offered to patients by the Mayo Clinic to eligible candidates which lessens surgery time and minimizes recovery time.
Researchers are taking 3-D printing a step further by loading the printer with human cells instead of plastic and metal. The printer is creating living tissue!
Experts envision making a transplant organ using one’s own cells (totally negating rejection of a transplant) within the next 20 years. Organ transplants will be completely revolutionized. No longer will people have to languish on waiting lists and dying without receiving the transplant that they need to live.
Biomedical engineers are now creating a plastic organ mold and covering it with human cells. (hoping they will grow on the mold). Another method being investigated is having the printer jet the cells out into a collagen-based gel. Once implanted, the mold or scaffold will crumble, leaving the living tissue in place. Bioengineers at Cornell University have already printed ears.
Reinforcing damaged organs with human tissue strips may be possible in the very near future.
Scott Hollister, a biomedical engineering professor at the University of Michigan points out that several dozen medical centers use 3-D printers nationally. He predicts that every hospital will have one in the future.
So, 3-D printing won’t just change healthcare delivery- it will revolutionize it!
Sign up to read about more developments and healthcare breakthroughs in the box at the top left corner of this page. See you at the next post!