3D printing technology has been around for 30 years, but until recently, the cost of a 3D printer made the technology out of reach to the general market. With the price of a 3D printer dropping from a low of $20,000 just several years ago to a range as low as around $500 today, consumers are beginning to take notice of the technology. However, it isn’t just consumers that are taking notice. Medical professionals are taking advantage of 3D printing technology to create devices that aid in medical training and surgery. Most importantly, 3D printing has helped produce medical advances that have saved lives.
On January 31, doctors at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, MI, used a 3D printer to manufacture biodegradable splints that were used to prop open air passages in both bronchi of a 16-month-old child who suffers from Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF) with absent pulmonary valve, a rare disorder that had weakened the child’s bronchi and made it very difficult for the child to breath. The procedure had previously been performed at C.S. Mott back in 2012, though the case wasn’t as extensive, requiring the patient only have one bronchi splinted. Now nearly two months removed from the surgery, doctors say the child, who has never spent a day out of the hospital, is doing well and exhibits considerably more energy, but is still being closely monitored.
To be sure, new technology can be scary to some people. There are those who even fall under the category of luddite: a person who is either anti or slow to adapt to new technology. However, whatever your stance is on technology and technological advances, it would be hard to frown upon new technology that has the ability to save a child’s life.
Beyond the splint created for the surgeries at C.S. Mott, there have been several other recent medical advances using 3D printing technology.
At the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, 3D printers are used to replicate patient’s livers, so that anatomically accurate models can be used during complicated surgeries, such as liver transplants or the removal of cancerous tumors. According to Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Nizar Zein, chief of hepatology, using the replicated livers helps eliminate any surprises that may arise during surgery.
In February, it was announced in the journal Nature Communications that 3D printing has been used to create an elastic sleeve that mimics the outer layer of the heart’s wall. The sleeve contains tiny sensors that can track various heart vitals, such as temperature, strain level and pH. Researchers believe the sleeve has the potential to treat patients with various heart rhythm disorders, including atrial fibrillation. Study co-author Igor Efimov, biomedical engineer at Washington University in St. Louis, believes this could be a significant advancement in the treatment of heart rhythm diseases, as current treatment entails inserting two electrodes inside the heart chambers. It’s also believed that the sleeve can one day be used to monitor the health of other organs in the body.
Other recent medical advances spurred by 3D printing technology include orthopaedic implants, dental replicas and custom hearing aids. Soon, given its increasing accessibility, 3D printing technology will become a ubiquitous part of our lives. Moreover, given its continued use to develop medical advances, 3D printing will most likely affect nearly all aspects of our health.
By Scott Merrow