Technology in medicine is constantly evolving, and the revolutionary tech of 3D printing has caught Amelie Martin’s interest, a Year 11 student from Comberton Village College, whilst on her virtual work experience placement.
Today, our conventional manufacturing technologies are too expensive, inflexible and slow for medical applications and aren’t compatible with biological materials.
3D printing is set to revolutionise the industry, bringing fast, customisable, and cost-effective manufacturing into medicine, and has already been predicted to be worth £2.5 billion by 2025.
3D printing is a technology first developed in the 1980s. It uses a digital model of a subject to print, layer by layer, a desired object. In fact, 3D printing has many applications, and some of its most exciting prospects are within the medical industry. 3D printing in the medical field has the potential to aid drug discovery and transform the level of understanding of different diseases, and how they impact the body.
The 4 most revolutionary applications of 3D printing are:
- 3D printing custom-made prosthetics
- Printing surgical instruments
- Using 3D printing in surgical preparation
3D printing custom-made prosthetics has already had a significant impact and there is now growing accessibility for amputees. Unfortunately, conventional prosthetics are expensive, with prices ranging between £300 to £100,000, meaning customizable devices are out of reach for many amputees, who have to settle for uncomfortable generic prosthetics. 3D printing offers an incredible solution to this problem, as it can reduce the number of assembly steps, the amount of human intervention required, and, therefore, the cost.
This technology can also speed up the process of purchasing a prosthetic limb, and could really make a difference for younger amputees, who often grow out of their prosthetics quickly and don’t have the resources to buy new ones. Depending on the type of prosthetic, the materials used and whether you use a free digital scanning website (so only need to pay for production), prices tend to range between around £50 and £800.
New technology is already developing to help support the transition to 3D printed prosthetics: Unyq, for example, has recently started to produce 3D printed prosthetic leg sockets, which are lightweight and approved in line with ISO standards, and should be added to their line by the end of 2021.
Prosthetics also accommodate the needs of all ages, even seniors as long as they are mobile. The biggest benefit of 3D printing prosthetics is that if you have a digital template of your limb and access to a 3D printer, it is then very straightforward to print a custom prosthetic.
Additionally, the 3D printing industry for surgical instruments is already growing rapidly, as it has the potential to manufacture a wide range of medical devices (such as forceps, retractors, medical clamps, needle drivers, haemostats and scalpel handles) on-demand and cost-effectively, which limits waste – a huge issue for the NHS, where 30% of healthcare costs are lost to waste in the system - saves money, and provides the opportunity for instruments to be more tailored to specific procedures or surgeons.
Surgical instruments are not complex to manufacture so this application of 3D printing requires much less regulation and could become far more widespread in medicine. 3D printing produces sterile tools which are precise and can be made very small, enabling the surgical instruments to be used to operate on tiny areas without causing unnecessary damage to a patient.
3D printing as a part of surgical preparation has been used in pre-operative planning for many different procedures, and is beginning to become a routine practice. It facilitates the production of models for pre-operative planning that enhance the visualisation of a procedure and provides the surgeon with an opportunity to complete a mock surgery on patient-specific organs.
Not only can 3D printing in surgical preparation solidify a surgeon’s approach to a surgery, it allows for the preadaptation of surgical instruments, so operations are shortened, precision is improved, and trauma for patients is minimised. For example, in Dubai surgeons performed a successful operation on a patient who had suffered from a cerebral aneurysm in 4 veins by using a 3D printed model of her arteries to devise a way to safely navigate her blood vessels.
3D Bioprinting has the potential to save lives by addressing the shortage of human organs available for transplant. 3D printers can layer bio-ink to create artificial living tissue which could be used to engineer human organs to be used for transplant, or manufacture tissues to be used in procedures and research.
Bioprinting technology is applicable to bone, skin, cartilage and muscle tissue as well as organs and products are already in clinical trials: US-based medical company, Organovo, is experimenting with printing liver and intestinal tissue to facilitate studying organs in vitro. In May 2018, they presented pre-clinical data for the functionality of its liver tissue in a program for type 1 tyrosinemia.
In conclusion, there are many exciting applications of 3D printing in medicine that could revolutionise manufacturing in medicine and transform lives. Current technologies are not as precise, inexpensive or customisable as 3D printed products, and we have the opportunity to change that. In addition, 3D printing is already being used in some hospitals and enabling them to perform incredible surgeries, demonstrating the importance of this innovation. There are also applications in research knowledge, disease treatment and drug discovery that have the promise to be tremendously beneficial. It would be naive to ignore this ground-breaking technology as there are countless benefits, and FDA regulation and trialling will ensure the safety of products.
Amelie Martin, Comberton Village College