How 3D Printing Is Changing Medical Treatment
It’s not so surprising that solid objects made from printed plastic or titanium, such as replacement hip joints or dental implants, can be made by 3D printers. More remarkable is that new human tissue might be printed from bio-ink comprising of droplets of living cells, stem cells and other biomaterials to replace or support an existing biological structure - a process known as regenerative medicine.
The conclusion of a decade of study has proved it is possible to print large-scale, viable human tissue for implantation that has the delicate vascular networks and blood vessels needed for survival. The technique of using clinical imaging data to add layers of cell-laden hydrogels to a bio-degradable plastic framework of the desired shape is called integrated tissue and organ printing (ITOP).1
The breakthrough inclusion of microscopically small vessels, which allows nutrients to reach the printed cells, is what gives the printed tissue prolonged survival. Although the ITOP process requires much more time to be developed fully, it could significantly alter how doctors approach operations, reconstructive surgery and even transplantations. Long waits on donor lists, problems with graft rejection and life-long immunosuppressant therapy could become a thing of the past for some transplant patients.
Custom medical devices fitted for individuals, such as prosthetics and implants, can be created at a relatively low cost and a higher level of precision with 3D printers. The potential to apply the technique in medicine and healthcare is advancing. Over the next decade 20% of an industry worth an estimated $8.9 billion will be represented by medical 3D printing, which includes drug manufacture, surgical equipment and body spare parts.2
Two dimensional (2D) radiographic images, including CT or MRI scans and x-rays, can be digitally converted to print complex 3D anatomical and medical structures. The imaging technology allows printing of a prosthetic that conforms to a patient’s exact shape and movement, thereby improving outcomes.
Eventually techniques may allow in-vivo printing of cells to take advantage of the natural hosting protection that the body offers developing cells. Meanwhile, laboratory-based in-vitro bio-printed tissues have immediate potential in testing the toxicity and effectiveness of drugs.
Despite the fact that it may take some time to become part of everyday clinical practice, the potential for 3D printers to create new organs to replace damaged and diseased ones is already a reality. In the future, underwriters could be reading medical reports that describe how the destructive effects of major medical disorders have been reversed using printed replacement parts. It is even possible, as worn-out parts are replaced by new ones, that our ideas about longevity may require a rethink.
- Hyun-Wook K et al. (2016). A 3D bioprinting system to produce human-scale tissue constructs with integrity. Nature Biotechnology 34,312–319 (2016).
- Schubert C, et al., Innovations in 3D printing: a 3D overview from optics to organs. Br J Ophthalmol. 2014;98(2):159–161.