Medical 3D printing, otherwise known as bioprinting, was once an ambitious pipe dream. However, time and investment eventually made it a reality. Now, 3D printers are helping pharmaceutical companies to create more specific drugs, enabling the rapid production of medical implants, and changing the way that doctors and surgeons plan procedures. The ultimate aim of medical 3D printing is to create replacement organs for human patients, but this is just one of its potential applications. Additive manufacturing for healthcare is still very much a work in progress, but it is already applied in so many ways. So, how has 3D printing changed the industry, and how will it affect the future of healthcare?
Medical additive manufacturing
By adding the right cells into a polymer or gel, scientists can print 3D products that can continue to function independently – in other words, they can create living organisms. Skin is naturally comprised of layers, and so makes the perfect candidate for 3D printed reconstruction. A research team based in Madrid has already successfully transplanted 3D printed skin onto mice. In January, this accumulated in a prototype 3D printer that could print human skin. Now, scientists at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid are waiting for the go ahead from European regulatory bodies before commercialising the technology. Mice have also been used to develop ovaries, which could potentially solve one of the most traumatic medical conditions that a woman can experience. Last year, scientists were able to implant ovaries into mice using a 3D printed scaffold of gelatin and cells. Other organs (like hearts) are particularly difficult to recreate due to their sheer complexity. However, less complicated organs like kidneys and livers could be available within the next six years. 3D printing in healthcare isn’t all about producing organs, though. Simple and decidedly inanimate objects have also been incredibly useful for doctors and surgeons. When preparing for an operation, medical professionals can print plastic anatomical models of the patient to help them perform more accurate surgery. 3D printing allows for personalisation, and where better to make use of that than in complicated medical procedures? In fact, using these 3D guides can reduce operating time by up to 30 per cent.
How will 3D printing continue to disrupt healthcare?
3D printers are affordable, accessible and relatively easy to use. However, from an employer’s perspective, the installation of these manufacturing machines will call for a certain level of technological expertise. Medical 3D printing will therefore create a new employment opportunity for CAD designers and engineers. As well as creating jobs, 3D printing could considerably enhance personalisation within healthcare. Patients in public medical facilities can sometimes feel like they’re on a conveyor belt, failing to receive adequate attention. Whilst 3D printing isn’t a fix all solution, it does mean that patients will receive highly customised products, far more accurate treatment and safer surgery. Perhaps the most impactful benefit of successful bioprinting is the production of organs. Finding a suitable donor is a painstaking process, but if 3D printers can create organs from scratch, there’s no need to wait for a replacement. Without wanting to jump the gun, 4D printing could be instrumental in creating functioning organs and implants. Because 4D printed objects react to certain triggers, replacement organs and skin would be able to adapt to changes in the body. For now, though, this new form of additive manufacturing is still very much confined to research labs.
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3D printing has presented the healthcare industry with a massive opportunity. Additive manufacturing has applications within complicated surgery, the production of important medical tools and the replacement of organs and skin, not to mention developing quality drugs. The beauty of 3D printing is that it is affordable, attainable and accessible, which is why it has been readily adopted in so many industries. Admittedly, medical facilities and pharmaceutical companies will need to change to accommodate 3D printers, but it’s a transformation which is certainly worthwhile.
Will 3D printers/bioprinters ever become standard equipment in medical facilities? Should new drugs still be tested on real, human participants? Could 3D printing solve the need for organ donors? Share your thoughts and opinions.
1. Bioprinting and Tissue Engineering: Scientists are already building 3D-printed organoids to mimic human organs at a small scale, and the report predicts that eventually hospitals will be able to print human tissue structures that could eliminate the need for some transplants.
However, Chuen says that “Unless there is some breakthrough that enables us to keep the cells alive while we print them, then I think printing a full human organ will remain impossible. But where there is potential is in working out how to reliably build organoids or components that we could then bind together to make them function like an organ.”
2. Pharmacology: 3D printing of drugs could enable companies to create multi-drug capsules that release different compounds at different times. There is already a printed polypill that contains three different drugs for diabetes and hypertension patients.
3. Surgical Rehearsal: Using 3D printed models to prepare for surgeries is already in practice at some hospitals. While the modeling software and equipment can be expensive, for particularly complex surgeries this method of rehearsal can save valuable (and costly) time in the operating theater.
4. Customized Prosthetics: Again, there are already a number of companies and organizations creating custom-fit prosthetics for patients (and even for pets) around the world. This not only helps improve the fit and function of the prosthetic, but can also reduce the need for additional surgeries.
5. Distributed Production: Rather than inventory large stores of drugs, prosthetics, and other equipment, hospitals could potentially create items on demand and on site. This would significantly alter the healthcare supply chain, but the report says there are still concerns around quality control and regulatory compliance.
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