Every day, hobbyists, designers, engineers, and educators find new and exciting applications for 3D printing. From 3D printed engines powering rockets into space to 3D printed concrete castles, the reaches of 3D printing are only just being realised around the world.
However, the most important 3D printing innovations are likely the ones that can help save and prolong human lives.
Due to the low cost, flexibility, and customisable options of 3D printing, it has expanded rapidly in the field of health care, changing the way those in the medical profession treat illnesses and injuries. Some applications are a reality and already helping patients, while others are a dream that researchers are working hard to achieve.
Here is an overview of a few ways that 3D printing is changing healthcare.
One of the first applications for 3D printing in the health field was customisable prosthetics. Because human bodies are unique, a one-size-fits-all solution does not work well for artificial limbs. This means that such prosthetics cannot be bulk manufactured and therefore traditionally come at both considerable time and cost.
However, with 3D printing, artificial limbs can be more easily customised at lower cost and in less time. This helps not only patients with access to good health care systems, but also those around the world in less fortunate circumstances.
One example is that of a team of volunteers from the University of Toronto that has been working to make 3D printed prosthetic legs available to children in Uganda.
The premise for 3D printed implants is not much different than that of 3D printed artificial limbs: implants will work better if they are customisable.
A team of researchers was able to 3D print models of animals’ hearts from images; then they developed electronics to fit perfectly around the hearts. These electronics could then be moved from the 3D model to the actual organ, and would fit perfectly.
Such customised electronics as oxygenation detectors and strain gauges would provide better monitoring and treatment for patients.
In 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first 3D printed drug, Spritram, an epilepsy medication. The new type of tablet is 3D printed as layers of powder and is meant to dissolve more easily than the average pill. It also created a fascinating precedent for consumable 3D printed objects.
The next step could be personalised drugs with dosages, sizes, and rates of delivery tailored specifically to individuals.
Doctors and scientists have been working for decades to find effective treatments, and hopefully one day a cure, for cancer. 3D printing may be able to play a role in helping patients beat this debilitating and often fatal disease.
3D printed tumours may lead to better understandings of cancer and treatments. Scottish researchers have been working to 3D print brain tumours using real cells, and a team from New Zealand are doing similar work with breast cancer.
Traditional cancer research used cells grown in a 2D sheet; however, these cells behave differently than actual three-dimensional tumours. 3D printing, therefore, has allowed for the possibility of discovering how certain cancers will react to various treatments, and the promise of better treatment is on the horizon.
The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine was the first in the world to successfully implant laboratory-grown organs into humans. In 2016, they announced that they had proven that living tissue structures could be 3D printed.
Hopefully, engineering of human tissue will help make organs more available than through donations, and the 3D printed organs could match patients’ needs more exactly. However, many studies still need to be done before such treatments can be viable.
Overall, 3D printing can, and does, contribute greatly to healthcare, from producing cheaper medical tools and equipment to providing customisable treatments to replacing lost limbs and organs.
Not all of 3D printings’ healthcare applications have been actualised, but researchers and scientists seem convinced that cures for diseases and replacements for organs are very possible.
Is a healthier world only a few 3D print designs away?