3D Printing and the Future of Care

Written June 13, 2018 by Aliya Hall

Ever since the world’s first 3D printer was built in 1983 by Chuck Hall, this technology has steadily progressed into one of the biggest game changers in the medical field. In just the year 2014, the 3D-printing industry grew by 35.2%. The impact of this technology will be seen across the medical board, from increased cost efficiency, faster prototyping, and innovative problem solving--all coming together to better patient health outcomes.

A More Affordable Treatment Option

Produced through a process called additive manufacturing, 3D printing creates a solid object from a multi-layered digital file blueprint. This can be used with material from plastic or metal powders, all the way to stem cells. It’s expected to cost less than $1.3 billion by 2021, and considering the fact that the United States spent a total of about $150 billion on medical equipment in 2010 alone, 3D printing has the potential to counteract the cost of pricy medical procedures and lower the cost of medical models used before surgeries or during the healing process. For example, the average kidney transplant costs around $330,000 while a 3D copy would sell for $10,000.

Saving Lives With Technology

Along with saving money, 3D printing saves lives. Already, 3D printing has helped the push towards personalized medicine. In vitro cloning of body parts has been a dream of medical professionals for years, and now we’re starting to see it come to fruition.

  • Prosthetics: Over 30 million people in the world need prosthetics, and 80% of those amputees do not have access to them. Unlike mass-manufactured, traditional prosthetics, 3D printed prosthetics are cheaper to make and can be customized to each individual for optimal fit and maximum comfort.
  • Implants: Along with prosthetics, implants now have the ability to be customized. This can be a lifesaver in the case of complex and rare diseases. Dutch surgeons successfully replaced the top of a woman’s skull with a plastic 3D printed implant because the inside of her skull was growing extra bone.
  • Biomaterials: 3D printing with stem cell material can help create organs and skin. Burn victims have had limited options for years — skin grafts and hydrotherapy solutions are painful and offer limited results — but by using human plasma and biopsied skin extracts, researchers can print about 100 square centimeters of human skin in about 30 minutes. And if that’s not amazing enough on its own already, 3D printers even have the ability to weave skin cells with a structural material that can function as blood vessels; bind chemicals to ceramic powder to enhance bone growth; combine cells and biomaterials to print heart valves; and replicate a human ear by filling a mold with cartilage cells suspended in collagen.

The Future of Care

In the future, scientists say that these 3D printed organoids will be able to adapt to and grow inside a patient’s body, and even take over when an organic organ fails. Even 3D printed pharmaceutical pills are being developed!

With medical advancements like these, 3D printing has laid the groundwork to shake up the medical field for the better and opened up the possibilities for vast improvement to patient health outcomes in the future.

 

Picture of Aliya Hall

Aliya Hall is a writer based in Eugene, Oregon. When she isn't writing, she enjoys playing ukulele and cuddling with her cat, Benji.