Medical 3D printing, otherwise known as bioprinting, was once an ambitious pipe dream. However, time and investment eventually made it a reality. Now, 3D printers are helping pharmaceutical companies to create more specific drugs, enabling the rapid production of medical implants, and changing the way that doctors and surgeons plan procedures. The ultimate aim of medical 3D printing is to create replacement organs for human patients, but this is just one of its potential applications. Additive manufacturing for healthcare is still very much a work in progress, but it is already applied in so many ways. So, how has 3D printing changed the industry, and how will it affect the future of healthcare?
Medical additive manufacturing
By adding the right cells into a polymer or gel, scientists can print 3D products that can continue to function independently – in other words, they can create living organisms. Skin is naturally comprised of layers, and so makes the perfect candidate for 3D printed reconstruction. A research team based in Madrid has already successfully transplanted 3D printed skin onto mice. In January, this accumulated in a prototype 3D printer that could print human skin. Now, scientists at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid are waiting for the go ahead from European regulatory bodies before commercialising the technology. Mice have also been used to develop ovaries, which could potentially solve one of the most traumatic medical conditions that a woman can experience. Last year, scientists were able to implant ovaries into mice using a 3D printed scaffold of gelatin and cells. Other organs (like hearts) are particularly difficult to recreate due to their sheer complexity. However, less complicated organs like kidneys and livers could be available within the next six years. 3D printing in healthcare isn’t all about producing organs, though. Simple and decidedly inanimate objects have also been incredibly useful for doctors and surgeons. When preparing for an operation, medical professionals can print plastic anatomical models of the patient to help them perform more accurate surgery. 3D printing allows for personalisation, and where better to make use of that than in complicated medical procedures? In fact, using these 3D guides can reduce operating time by up to 30 per cent.
How will 3D printing continue to disrupt healthcare?
3D printers are affordable, accessible and relatively easy to use. However, from an employer’s perspective, the installation of these manufacturing machines will call for a certain level of technological expertise. Medical 3D printing will therefore create a new employment opportunity for CAD designers and engineers. As well as creating jobs, 3D printing could considerably enhance personalisation within healthcare. Patients in public medical facilities can sometimes feel like they’re on a conveyor belt, failing to receive adequate attention. Whilst 3D printing isn’t a fix all solution, it does mean that patients will receive highly customised products, far more accurate treatment and safer surgery.
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