3D Printing for Your Health
by Robin Hegg
Imagine you live in an area of the world where doctors don’t have access to modern medical equipment. Imagine you needed a prosthesis or implant to improve your life and your ability to work. With access to a 3D printer and free, open source designs, the quality of available healthcare in your area could change vastly. The increased accessibility and affordability of 3D printers could revolutionize how objects are manufactured, challenge copyright laws, and give even the most isolated people access to the things they need. In September of 2014, a 3D printer was delivered to the International Space Station. A few months later, NASA emailed the astronauts CAD (computer aided design) drawings for a socket wrench, which they were able to print onboard the space station.
3D printers are able to create a three-dimensional object by applying layers of material following a computer’s instruction. The process of 3D printing is also called additive manufacturing, because the printed object is created by adding layer upon layer of material. The printing material can be anything from plastics to human cells to sugar.
To create a 3D object, a 3D model must be created first. This can be done using CAD software, a 3D scanner, or a digital camera and special software. The 3D model then needs to be converted into a .STL or .OBJ file for the printing software to read it. The converted file then needs to be processed by a “slicer,” a piece of software that converts the 3D model into a series of layers and provides the 3D printer with a G-code file of printing instructions.
3D printers have become much more affordable in recent years and it’s expected that desktop 3D printers will be available in the near future. Machines that once cost $20,000 now cost less than $1,000. The Peachy Printer, a Kickstarter-funded project, is designed to cost $100. 3D printing is becoming such an exciting and wide-spread new technology that a recent report looking at engineering job listings over the course of one month found that 35 percent of engineering jobs required familiarity with 3D printing.
Having the ability to manufacture an object so easily and locally means that creating prototypes or customized products could be much simpler and cheaper than ever before. One of the greatest benefits of using a 3D printer is the ability to create small numbers of customized objects. In traditional manufacturing, the higher number of items produced, the cheaper they are to make. Manufacturing small batches of items or single, customized items, can be very expensive. 3D printers could change all that.
One area in which 3D printing could revolutionize cost, access, and innovation is the medical field. Researchers are even working to print with live cells, which would allow scientists to print tissue and organs, a process sometimes called bioprinting. It’s expected that 3D printing will become widely used to create hearing aid and dental implants. 3D printing not only makes custom-fitted implants and prosthetics more possible and affordable, it also means medical equipment could be cheaper and more readily accessible.
3D printing has already been used to create a titanium pelvis, a titanium lower jaw, and a plastic tracheal splint, all of which were successfully implanted in patients. In March of 2014, surgeons were able to use 3D printed parts to help rebuild the face of an injured motorcyclist.
e-Nable is an all volunteer organization working to design and print prosthetic hands, primarily for children. Volunteers include high school students and Scout troops, who work to print or assemble the prosthetics for people who need them. The organization works to match people in need of a prosthetic with someone who can make it for them. They also work on new prosthetic designs and make their designs available for free so others can use them where they are needed.
3D printed prosthetics have also been used to help animals. In December of 2014 a video of a dog named Derby running for the first time on his 3D printed legs, became popular online. 3D printed prosthetics have also been used to give a duckling a new foot, a bald eagle a new beak, and hermit crabs new and interesting shells.
3D printers can also be used to make special tools for doctors. In January of 2015, doctors at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London were able to use images from a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan to create a 3D printed replica of a two-year-old’s heart. The heart had a very complex hole in it. Using the 3D model of the child’s heart, doctors were then able to create a custom-fitted Gore-Tex patch to fix the hole. Having the 3D printed model of the heart also allowed surgeons to have a much better idea of what they would find before surgery began.
Researchers are also working to 3D print tissue in a process sometimes called bioprinting. Bioprinting involves using cells as the printing material and could have many exciting medical applications. Replacement tissue could be printed to replace skin, other tissues, and possibly even entire organs. Bioprinting is a complex process involving researchers in a number of different fields, including medicine, cell biology, materials science, and many kinds of engineering.
Researchers have had early success generating a variety of different tissues, including bone, skin, cartilage, and heart tissue and are working toward being able to manufacture fully functional tissue and replacement organs. Researchers in Cornell University College of Engineering’s Jonathan Butcher Laboratory have been working to develop methods of bioprinting living aortic heart valves. Cornell’s Lawrence Bonassar Laboratory is working to create replacement intervertebral disks. Researchers were able to bioprint these tissue engineered intervertebral disks with cell-seeded hydrogel constructs and implant them into male rats.
Researchers have also been studying how inkjet printing techniques could be used to build organs and body parts. Layers of living cells would be deposited onto a gel medium or sugar matrix. Layer upon layer would be added until three-dimensional structures were formed. The first system for 3D printing tissue was created in 2009. Printerinks and Organovo, two private companies, have worked together to use 3D printing to develop human tissue. They have adapted printer cartridges to use stem cells, resulting in a substance called Bioink.
China has begun investing heavily in 3D printing development, committing almost $500 million to establish ten national 3D printing development institutes. Chinese scientists began printing kidneys, livers, and ears with living tissue in 2013. Researchers at Hangzhou Dianzi University created a 3D printer specifically for bioprinting with living cells, called the Regenovo. The printer is able to produce a four to five inch ear cartilage sample or a mini liver sample in under an hour. Regenovo’s creator predicts that printing fully functional organs may be possible in the next ten to twenty years.
Teens have also been taking advantage of the ability to produce objects with a 3D printer, leading to some impressive outcomes in many fields, including medicine.
As part of a school project, Mohammad Sayed and his classmates worked to improve his wheelchair. Using a 3D printer, the students added a laptop tray and a canopy, and changed the wheelchair’s wheel mechanism so that it could be moved with a rowing action instead of the traditional push. The printed parts cost only about $2 or $3 dollars, and the students are making their plans open source so anyone who wants can 3D print these wheelchair add-ons themselves.
Seventeen-year-old Easton LaChapelle developed a 3D printed robotic prosthetic arm. Using modeling software and a 3D printer, he printed parts and constructed a functional prosthetic arm that can interface with the human brain, all in his bedroom.
3D printing is changing how we make things, who can make things, and how much time and money it takes. In the field of healthcare, it’s improving patient access, making implants, prosthetics, and other tools more available, affordable, and customizable. Doctors and designers now have the ability to collaborate quickly across the world, sparking and speeding innovation.