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10 Ways 3D Printing is Shaping the Future of Medicine

The concept of 3D printing is truly catching fire as the next glimpse of the future. Scientists have successfully created electronics, weapons, and even edibles using this technology. But how can this play a role in the future of medicine? Research teams from all corners of the globe have discovered ways in which 3D printing can pave the way for a new age in medicine. Let's take a look at the major milestones that are unfolding in the world of 3D health today.

Stem Cells
Researchers at Heriot-Watt University and Harvard Medical School have created 3D printers that can duplicate stem cells that code for vital body tissue. By using compressed air in a series of mixing trays, scientists can produce droplets of liquids containing stem cells, with each liquid having a different chemical composition that marks for a specific tissue to be created. The cells were left to replicate, and they resulted in a 90% survival rate. Scholars hope to create full tissue in the future that can be used in transplants and drug analysis.

Vascular Networks
Building upon stem cell research, The University of Sydney was bent on finding a solution to a major problem in organ synthesis, vascular tissue. These tiny fiber mazes are nearly impossible to construct, and are vital to the survival of tissue. Partnering with MIT in their first study, students used a 3D printer to create a model of vascular structure. They molded living cells onto the structure and hardened it, leaving behind a finished system. Compare this to a cake molded out of a Bundt pan. Now they must construct the correct cake batter, or cell material. This will be the challenge they face in the future as they hope to create working blood tissue.

Synthetic Skin
L’Oréal Paris is heading an operation in the creation of human skin. Using 3D technology, French researchers have created plates of “Episkin” that they intend to use for testing their cosmetics. If successful manufacturing of this skin is stabilized, L’Oréal plans to use the technology to eliminate animal testing, which affects over 100 million animals a year, according to the USDA.

Using stem-cells, regenerative medicine can be modified with 3D “bio-printers” to create structures. This includes the vascular networks from the Sydney/MIT experiments as well as modeling that can be used for tubular and more complex organs within the body. With advancement in bio-printing, scholars propose a goal to create transplantable organs such as hearts and kidneys capable of saving the lives of more than 300,000 people a year.

Prosthetic Components
Over 185,000 amputations occur each year in the U.S. This leaves a current total of two million amputees with prosthetic limbs. MIT researchers have designed FitSocket, a technology that utilizes 3D printing to create a limb that is shaped using the design of the patient’s body, in order to create a custom fit that allows for greater control and a realistic look. Manufacturers are currently reforming their factories to better suit the technology.

Dr. Bon Verweij of the aforementioned University of Utrecht built upon the bone studies of his peers. He was successful in organizing a team that printed a mechanical skull and transplanted it to a patient. The patient was victim to a disease that causes skull thickening, and Dr. Verweij explained that the 3D figures allowed him to precisely place the cement implants for a near perfect, custom skull. Doctors from around the world are interested in furthering mechanical duplication of other body parts.

Bone & Cartilage
Dutch scientists at University Medical Center Utrecht have harnessed 3D printing to “print” polymers. Occurring naturally in animals, polymers are chemicals in which cell construction takes place. Hydrogel is a specific form of polymerase that aids in the generation of bone and cartilage. They applied this to cartilage cells and found it created much larger samples of tissue than normal. Professor Malda of the university believes this will open a gateway to creating full bones and joints in the future. New technologies have harnessed the flexibility of 3D printers for use in medical and dental settings utilizing unique FDA-approved materials to create customized items that fit particular patients.

The FDA has recently issued a green light on 3D medication production. Pharmacists would be at the operating end in a procedure where they would print custom pills with specific dosages to meet a patient’s needs according to their bodily make up. Doctors such as Stephen Hilton, who heads a team at UCL School of Pharmacy, sees more potential ahead, outlining the creation of softer pills for easier swallowing, as well as coding for pills released into the body through triggers such as cancer. Chemistry Professor Lee Cronin believes intense software must be developed to control dosage and error outputs. He concluded that current error margin in pharmacy is 4.5%. He, as well as many peers worldwide, do not believe that percentage will rise due to 3D printing.

Medical Models
Centering its research in Japan, an Italian company has produced realistic 3D surgical models with fake blood and realistic humidity to replicate human body conditions. Young MD’s completing residencies may use the technology to better prepare them for real surgery. Dr. Morikawa of Tokyo believes other models are “too simple” and that these will revolutionize surgical training.

Surgical Instruments
Dr. Julielynn Y. Wong headed a team study published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine where they created surgical instruments from Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic through 3D printing. To test their results, they asked 13 surgeons to use the plastic instruments as opposed to their usual arsenal. They found that all surgeons completed the tasks successfully, but they also learned that the ABS was prone to bending. They believe that thickening the layers of plastic used in printing can result in effective, meticulous tools that can be forwarded to sanitation research.

It’s more than apparent that 3D printing is revolutionizing countless sectors of medicine. Many experts believe that optimal results in fields such as regenerative therapy will take years, while others are already observing landmark progress in pharmaceuticals and surgical models. In all, scientific peers are certain of one thing; 3D printing is the inevitable future of medicine as we know it.

by Matthew Young
on 11/24/2015

Matthew Young is a freelance tech journalist and blogger hailing from Boston. He is passionate about new, emerging tech in the industry. When Matthew is not busy writing about awesome new technology, he usually spends time fiddling with his camera and learning a thing or two about photography. You can reach Matthew @mattbeardyoung.

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