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3D printing: fueling a medical revolution

​​​How 3D printing technologies that are transforming the work of doctors and pharmacists will benefit us all as patients

First published on June 11, 2018

​From Robots to Blockchain technology, we've seen that eHealth is changing healthcare around the world in a variety of ways.  While 3D printing promises to deliver a manufacturing revolution across multiple industries, it is likely to transform the world of medicine too.

The potential uses for the technology are still evolving, but here's a look at a handful of intriguing developments so far.

1. Bioprinting

Scientists are using 3D printers to build so-called organoids, which mimic organs but on a miniaturized scale. Primarily used for research, they are created using human cells that can be stimulated to grow into the functional unit of a particular organ, such as a liver or kidney. 3D bioprinting involves using a computer-guided pipette that takes up cell cultures suspended in nutrient-rich solution and prints them out in layers suspended in a gel. The technology is not yet able to build full-scale organs but it has the potential to help overcome a lack of organ donors. 

2. Polypills

A 3D-printed polypill that contains three separate drugs has already been developed for type 2 diabetes patients with high blood pressure. Rather than simply embedding multiple active pharmaceutical ingredients in a single pill that's designed to dissolve at a one set time, 3D-printed polypills are put together in such a way as to create a multi-layered effect. This means the different drugs can be kept apart in different compartments of the pill, and released at different times to better tackle a patient's symptoms.

3. Surgery rehearsals 

Doctors are now able to practice some clinical procedures ahead of actually operating on a real patient, thanks to 3D technologies. For example, surgery rehearsals at hospitals in the UK  use 3D-printed parts of the skull that are created after a MRI or CT scan of the patient. For patients, this preparation means better outcomes, it reduces operation time and anesthesia.  This delay may impact the resident's mind.  In the same way, for a specialized surgeon, some delicate operations must be prepared. In order to do so, doctors can train on life-size models.

With the very high cost of using operating theatres, that could mean 3D printing cuts the spending associated with surgery, allowing a hospital to put funds to use elsewhere.  

4. Customized prosthetics

In Nepal, US-born Matthew Rockwell last year used a 3D printer to make a new hand for a Nepalese farmer who'd been the victim of leprosy. It's just one example of this rapidly evolving application of 3D printing and the hope is that prosthetics created in this way could soon be used in procedures such as artificial hip replacements. One big improvement would be ending the need for surgeons to cut a patient's bone to fit a traditional mass-supplied prosthetic. Instead, a 3D-printed prosthetic would be personalized for individual patients. 

5. Localized production

Localized medical 3D printing is already a fact – with 3D printers installed last year at American hospitals treating military veterans​  being just one example. In the near future, where there was once a need for a warehouse full of prosthetic limbs and medicines, files for their design will simply be downloaded by hospitals and pharmacies. They can then be produced as and when needed. Provided a hospital or nearby printing facility has the necessary equipment, this will drastically cut transport costs for prosthetics and medicines.

TAGGED IN innovation; 3d printing; internet of things; iot; m2m