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How 3D printing is transforming the world of medicine.
While other industries may still be trying to figure out practical uses for 3D printing, the healthcare industry is already using it to save and improve lives. From implants and prosthetics to home-grown drugs and human organs, the 3D printing revolution has begun in the medical world.
At the Inside 3D Printing conference earlier this month, Dr. Amir Dorafshar, co-director of the Facial Transplantation Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine, highlighted some of the groundbreaking possibilities that 3D printing has created for surgeons. Particularly for cranial and facial surgery for patients who have suffered severe head trauma or infants born with abnormalities, 3D printing allows surgeons to create implants design specifically for each patient.
For example, a woman in Holland was given a 3D-printed skull to resolve a condition that caused her skull to grow thicker, which put pressure on the brain and resulted in loss of vision and impaired motor skills. The procedure is believed to be the first of its kind, and the surgeons behind it consider 3D printing a much safer and more effective solution than the cement or bone implants used for cranial procedures in the past.
Helping a baby breathe
Last May, doctors and researchers at the University of Michigan designed and printed an artificial splint to help an Ohio infant whose airway couldn’t support itself breathe without a breathing machine. The project was a success, allowing the boy to breathe on his own without an issue, and eventually without the assistance of a breathing tube.
Pelvis implant for cancer patient
After a cancer patient in his 60s needed to remove half of his pelvis as a result of a rare form of bone cancer, doctors turned to 3D printing to develop a functional implant, the Telegraph reported. The condition had spread so quickly in the patient’s pelvis that doctors wouldn’t have been able to provide an implant without the 3D printing solution.
Pediatric heart surgery
In February, doctors in Louisville, Ken., performed the world’s first pediatric heart surgery aided by 3D printing, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported. The 14-month-old patient was born with heart defects that were so severe that the doctors couldn’t identify the exact problems prior to the operation. A surgeon at the Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville contacted the University of Louisville engineering school about 3D printing, and received a free MakerBot 3D Printer for the project. Using CT scans of the patient’s heart, the doctors printed a plastic replica of the heart to study before the surgery.
Accommodating pediatrics in general
Pediatric markets tend to be overlooked by large companies developing medical devices, as the market is naturally smaller and the patients’ needs are too specific for mass-produced hardware. Recognizing this, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia directed an annual contest on innovative medical technology to 3D printing, MedCity News reported. The contest sparked research on the use of 3D printing to create custom devices quickly, providing fast care to children who may not have received it without the technology.
Earlier this month, a company called Brightwake announced that it developed a “blood-recycling machine” using a Stratasys 3D printer. The device is designed to collect blood during major operations, such as open heart surgery, and aims to reduce the need for donor blood and complex transfusion procedures during operation.
Dental implants and crowns
3D printing has enabled dentists to scan teeth on-site and print implants and crowns in roughly an hour, according to Singularity Hub. Previously, dentists were limited to molds, which had to be sent to a lab that created the implant and sent it back to the dentist – a process that involved weeks and multiple visits for patients.
While most uses of 3D printing in the medical world has managed to make headlines over the past few years, the technology has been used to build hearing aids for years. Because hearing aids are so small and intricately designed, the only alternative to 3D printing the devices is building them by hand. Obviously, 3D printing is the most efficient method, and has been used to make the majority of the hearing aids used in the world, according to a Forbes report.