First used in the 1980s for car manufacturing prototypes, 3D printing has grown to have a significant impact on medicine today, where it can provide solutions for complex or high-risk situations.
How do doctors use 3D printers?
After taking a scan, such as a CT or an MRI, of a particular area, a specialised computer graphics programme uses these results to create the exact dimensions for of the same area. These are sent to a 3D printer, which outputs the replica, in a variety of biocompatible materials.
When a delicate touch is needed
From Michigan, USA, where researchers printed a splint to hold open a section of a baby’s airway[i], to Hangzhou, China, where a 21 year old man with a rare spinal tumour was fitted with a custom-designed prosthesis to reinforce damaged vertebrae[ii], 3D printing is particularly useful when it comes to providing solutions for highly complex or delicate parts of the body.
Craniofacial surgery is also an area where 3D printing is having an important impact on patients’ lives. A surgical team in Wales implanted a replica of the fractured facial bones of a young man injured in a motorcycle accident, while a medical centre in New York created a stencil-like structure to fit around a child’s malformed jaw, adapting to the growing cells while doctors went about forming a normal jaw, which avoided a risky bone-graft operation and allowed for an earlier intervention than would have been possible otherwise.
3D printers can also allow doctors to create replicas to practice on before surgery takes place[iii]. A striking example of this is the life-saving heart surgery performed on a two week old baby at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York this past autumn. As the heart was unusually structured, surgery was high risk. Yet by printing a replica to study beforehand, the surgical team was able to intervene with only one operation.
“In the past we had to stop the heart and look inside to decide what do to. With this technique, it was like we had a road map to guide us. We were able to repair the baby’s heart with one operation,” asserts Dr Emile Bacha, who performed the successful operation.
“The biggest leap for medical 3-D printing lies ahead”
3D printing holds great promise for the future, yet we are still quite a way from actual organ transplants. Affirming that “the biggest leap for medical 3-D printing lies ahead”, researcher and medical writer Jerome Groopman explains that “even with modern mapping software, biologists struggle to understand how our cells interact with one another to form three-dimensional tissues and organs, and they’ve had an even harder time re-creating those geometrics.”
While stressing the need for cautious optimism, Best Doctors shares the medical community’s enthusiasm for innovations such as these, which gives great hope for those on organ waiting lists and people struggling with complex conditions who would benefit from the intricate abilities and solutions offered by 3D medical printing.
[iii] please see note “i”