When I first heard about 3-D printers, I immediately wanted to use one. The thing is I couldn’t think of what I would use it for. Fortunately there are people with far more vision than I possess. Especially in the medical field, it seems they were just waiting for the capabilities afforded them by 3-D printers. Just what are those applications?
Dr. Anthony Atala at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is experimenting with bio printing. Actual cells are used to build layer upon layer of tissues upon a template that is then removed. This process uses bio ink — a mixture of biodegradable gel and actual human cells — along with a type of scaffolding that is akin to the material in your shirt, to create body parts that are an exact match for the person receiving the body part. During a Ted Talk in 2011, Attalla printed a kidney. Yes, an actual human kidney made with cells by a process that may one day create a custom-made kidney for a person in need of a transplant. Not only will this mean that a person does not have to wait for a donor, it means the recipient’s body will not reject the organ. Since more than 90% of the people on the transplant list are in need of a kidney, it will provide a solution to a pressing problem.
A 3-D printer was used in 2012 to create a custom-fit part, to save the life of an infant. A medical team at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor created a splint to go over the weakened section of the airway. The splint was made of the same material that goes into sutures. It fit over the weakened section and was designed to dissolve as the boy’s cells grew over it over the next few years. It fit perfectly because it had been “made to order” through the use of the 3-D printer.
Practicing for complex surgeries is also possible with 3-D printers. The printers make 3-D objects from MRI or CT scans. At Boston Children’s Hospital, these exact replicas of what the doctor’s will encounter are used to plan and practice possible approaches to a surgery. “We’re trying to reduce surprise,” said Dr. Peter Weinstock, director of the hospital’s simulator program, which includes 3-D models and other forms of simulation. “We’re trying to make surgeons more prepared to take care of these kids. The fact that they’ve seen the anatomy before is a complete game changer.”
One of the most exciting uses of 3-D printers is in the creation of affordable prosthetics. Especially with children who are still growing, the cost of prosthetics at each stage of their growth quickly grows to be prohibitive. With a 3-D printer, it’s possible to create a working prosthetic that is an exact fit for a nominal cost. There is an organization, e-NABLE, that provides 3-D printed prosthetic hands for kids. The hands can be made in any color and the hands can grasp objects ranging from a Pez dispenser to an orange. In Manhattan, a group of high school students have put a 3-D printer to work to make their math lessons pay off in tangible benefits in the form of prosthetic hands. They are also working with e-NABLE.
The latest achievement of those working with e-NABLE’s open source schematics was a group in Augusta, Georgia. Liam Porter, 7-years old, was born without his left arm below the elbow. Finding a prosthetic that was easy to use and that he was comfortable with was a challenge. Many insurance companies do not cover the cost of prostheses for children – yes, you read that right – and at more than $9,000 and up for a standard prosthetic hand for a child, it’s not easy to keep up with their growth with a prosthetic limb. Add to that that most kids don’t want to whip out a prosthetic arm, and you can understand the difficulty of being a kid who needs some help. Luckily for Liam, John Peterson had a new 3-D printer and he was looking for a project. (He had the vision to know there must be a need he could meet with his printer!) He discovered the e-NABLE and made a prosthetic at a cost of around $300.
Liam could have had a prosthetic arm that was a snazzy color. He could have had green fingers and a blue palm, or some combination thereof, but that wasn’t Liam’s style. Liam is a huge Star Wars fan so Peterson made him a prosthetic arm that was a perfect fit in more ways than one. He made him a Star Wars Clone Trooper arm with a hand that opens and closes, a special clip for a fork or knife, and an awesome look. The arm was presented along with a 501st Legion certificate from the local “Friends of the Garrison.”
Transplantable organs, tubes to help with weakening structures in the body, practicing for surgeries, creating customized hands and arms – the list of medical uses for 3-D printers is long and growing. The very newest use of 3-D printing in the medical field is the DragonFlex. It’s a medical device for complex procedures like keyhole surgeries. In these surgeries doctors remove cancerous tissues through a small opening in the body. This minimally invasive approach reduces scar tissue and healing time. DragonFlex creators Biomechanical engineer Filip Jelinek of the Austrian Center for Medical Innovation and Technology collaborated with Paul Breedveld and Rob Pressers of Delft University of Technology to create the device to be a low-cost alternative to existing tools. The device they created not only costs less than the traditional device, it has advantages due to the range of motion of the device. Ultimately, the DragonFlex may be packaged for a single use.
With so many people with 3-D printers looking for projects for their printers, and so many other people willing to share their expertise and plans for things like prosthetic arms, the possibilities for 3-D printers in medicine is limitless. With bio ink for organs, custom fits for stents and tubes for weakened vital body parts, the opportunity to practice surgeries that will be performed on the youngest of children, and prosthetic arms that make the kids who wear them the envied one in the group, we’re off to a future filled with magnificent possibilities.
[Post photo: “Cyborg Beast” prosthetic courtesy of e-NABLE.]