3D Printing is Reshaping Modern Medicine

Chelsea Rushton

Contributing Author / Medical Illustrator

June 1, 2016

The first 3D printer was developed nearly thirty years ago, but its only been in the past few years that 3D printing has become something of a medical sensation. Today researchers are using 3D printing to completely transform the field of medicine, utilizing it for everything from drug testing, and preoperative planning, to developing state-of-the-art prostheses. As more applications for 3D printing are being discovered, its quite clear that 3D printing is here to stay.

In the field of anatomic modeling, Orthotists, Prosthetists, and Anaplastologists, to name a few, are using 3D technology to create customized implants and prostheses by utilizing CT scanners and 3D modeling programs. No longer is this a “one-size-fits-all” approach. By digitally mapping out a patients anatomic profile, prostheses are now a custom fit, specific for that patient needs. Not only does the prosthetic look more natural, it allows for a more functional and comfortable prosthesis.

Surgeons and educators are also cashing in on printed models, while pre-operative planning is becoming big business. Surgeons are now working with biomedical artists to create 3D printed models that map out the complex anatomy of certain diseases, before operating. This allows for a more detailed, non-invasive, analysis of what lies within the patients anatomy before beginning intensive surgical procedures. With 3D planning, a surgeon is able to essentially “scout out” any potential complications well before surgery. Educators and students are using similar life like models of human organs that have been printed directly from CT scans of patients. Now students can study outside of the anatomy lab using models that accurately illustrate the intricacies of anatomy, as opposed the almost “cartoonish” models that are typically used. This results in a more comprehensive understanding of human anatomy, while sparing students and labs the expense of acquiring and maintaining cadavers.

3D printing is also being utilized among new pharmaceutical companies to get ahead of old competition. With leading bioprint companies like Organovo now printing smaller, fully functioning organs like livers and skin, drug companies are using these printed tissues to conduct human testing, without actually testing on humans or animals. Animal testing isn’t reliable as it does not always yield the same results as human trials. Inconclusive results means extensive time, money, and resources dedicated to developing medications. By testing directly on fully functioning human organs, not only are animals no longer needed, but toxicity results are precise and timely. With this new technology it is the hope of these new drug developers to start designing patient-specific pharmaceuticals and transform our current “one size fits all” drug industry into a more efficient “patient-tailored” enterprise.

These are just a few examples of how bioprinting is impacting medicine. 3D printing technology has introduced an effective way to not only save lives, but to also conduct research and educate. However, its not without its complications. There is still a lot that is unknown about the applications of 3D printing – concerns about materials, maintenance, uncontrolled cellular growth, ethical use of printed tissues, and protocols for research methodologies are among the most contested. It will be some time before full sized 3D printed organs will be used as the main source for organ donation. But with bioprinting companies like Organovo rewriting the rules, the evidence is clear. Bioprinting will save lives and is revolutionizing an industry that has historically thrived on outdated and expensive protocols.



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