The advent of 3D printing has revolutionized the healthcare sector across the globe with its different applications. It has been used in the manufacturing industry for a long time now and paving its way to other sectors as well. But in the healthcare sector, this has proved to be a boon for saving human lives.
Before we learn about the detailed applications of 3D printing in the medical field, let us have an understanding of how the process works.
How does it work?
Three-dimensional printing (3D printing), as the name itself suggests, builds three-dimensional objects by successively adding layers one after one. The materials are joined and supervised through computerized controls to take the shape of three-dimensional objects. The process is also known as additive manufacturing. The ability of 3D printing to build objects with complex shapes and sizes is what paid off to be a significant advancement in the healthcare sector.
Some major applications of 3D printing in the medical field are discussed below:
- Bioprinting organoids and tissue engineering
One of the crucial 3D printing medical uses is bioprinting and tissue engineering. It helps in generating tiny organs using stem cells as the production material. They are also known as bio-ink. They are layered and molded one after another to build artificial living tissues.
These organoids work as a replica of organs and can be used for various researches in the laboratory. Besides, they are also gradually replacing human organ transplants. They are a cheaper option for transplanting vital organs on the human body. They can grow inside the human body and take over as a vital organ when the original organ fails or stops working.
Given below are some of the most significant breakthroughs in bioprinting:
- Bones: A medical team from the UK has been able to develop a bioprinting process to build artificial bones. These are produced by using layers of regenerative biomaterial. They are not capable of forming new bone tissues. However, they are capable of fusing with natural bones with time.
- Cartilage: A team of researchers from Australia has devised a cartilage printing device, which uses stem cells as the production material.The stem cells can be derived from a patient’s fat. So far fat testing has only been done on animals. But steps are in progress to make it successful on humans as well.
- Heart: A group of scientists from America has worked to develop a fully vascularized 3D heart by using fat tissue cells. The process is still in its early stages.
- Skin: A printer designed by Wake Forest School of Medicine can build skin for the treatment of severe burns. A tiny percentage of the skin can be used to grow enough cells for the process.
- Liver and intestine: Researches are going on in a US-based lab to print liver and intestines.
- Brain: The Wake Forest Institute has also worked on developing a cell-based brain organoid, which mimics the human anatomy to certain levels.
- Customized prosthetics
Using prosthetic limbs is not a new phenomenon in the medical field. But, with 3D printing medical devices, the process gets smoother, faster, and cheaper. Treatments become fast, as patients do not have to wait for months to get their prosthetics ready. Further, customized prosthetics can be printed through 3D printing to suit every patient’s unique body measurements.
Traditionally, manufactured prosthetics are expensive and create difficulty in movement, as all are mass products and heavy in weight. 3D printing of prosthetic is done by taking scans of the person’s limb to create a more natural fit.
- Surgery preparations and surgical instruments
3D printing devices assist doctors in surgery preparations. They can create replicas of the patient’s organ and practice complicated surgeries on it before proceeding with the actual surgery. This helps in reducing surgical failures and blunders and speeds up the complete process. It has become a routine practice in top hospitals to perform surgeries with 3D printed organs when complications are witnessed. There are many instances from across the world, where doctors have successfully performed complicated surgeries, that otherwise have very few chances of success.
3D printing also assists in building cheap versions of surgical instruments and sterile tools. They are equally helpful in performing operations. The small version of large surgical tools produced through 3D printing helps to operate on tiny areas with ease without causing much damage to the organ or its cells.
- 3D printing helps in reconstructing body parts
3D printing medical uses have proved miraculous when it comes to body reconstruction in the following ways:
Jaw reconstruction: 3D printing makes jaw reconstruction an easy and convenient process,especially in elderly patients. The 3D jawbone is printed by using titanium powder as the material with bioceramic coating. This procedure has been used by a group of doctors in the Netherlands for a jaw reconstruction of an 83-year old woman. This process is less risky than the traditional method.
3D printing was also used in China to implant a new jaw on a person who was shot in the face. The doctors first printed a 3D mandible to examine the jaw injuries and developed the 3D printed jaw with titanium for implantation. The operation was successful, and the patient recovered properly.
Breast reconstruction: A group of doctors from CHU de Lille, Lille University Hospital has developed a 3D printing method for building breast prosthesis. This replaces the traditional method of silicone implantation and uses the fat transfer technique. To prevent the body from absorbing excess fat from the breast area, a 3D printed shell is used. The shell is developed with bio-resorbable material, which is absorbed by the body like stitches. This prevents the need for additional surgery when the body absorbs too much fat.
- Application in Pharmacology
3D printing medical uses also have promising advancements for pharmacology. It has also been used to develop cost-effective 3D printed pills that are a storehouse of multiple drugs. 3D pills prevent patients from taking numerous pills at the same time and take care of several ailments with a single prescription.
This concept is already being used widely for diabetic patients to develop polypill with five compartmentalized drugs to provide complex medication prescriptions in one tablet. This is beneficial for patients with different medication schedules for different tablets.
- Applications in the dental sector
3D printing devices are also digitalizing the dental field with cheap and time-saving procedures. With the introduction of 3D printed castable crowns, braces, dental bridges, denture frameworks, bases, and dental restorations, the dental industry has witnessed quite a transforming change. With 3D printing technology, the dental implantation processes are doing away with the need for the molding process and increasing success rates.
This technology can be easily adopted across dental clinics with accurately designed solutions to replace traditional dentistry.
Despite promising breakthroughs, the application of 3D printing in the medical field is still in its nascent stage. There is always room for improvement before it can be utilized to its optimum capacities. Whatever has been achieved to date is worth all the appreciation. But one cannot expect rapid advances overnight. No major discoveries and inventions have happened overnight. They all are a result of great vision, time, patience, and persistence.