3D Printing - Improving the Medical World
September 4, 2015
Wearable 3D Printed Shoes, Strvct, Wikimedia
Imagine being able to print an actual pizza from a picture found on a computer. This is what 3-dimensional printing is allowing us to do. 3D printers create three dimensional objects of a digital picture. They print with materials rather than with the ink 2D printers use. One thin layer is placed on top of another until the solid object is made.
The object is either designed from scratch or scanned using a 3D scanner. The software for this process separates the digital picture into many horizontal layers. You can think of each layer as a two-dimensional image. The printer then reads and prints each layer. Guitars, car parts, and bikinis have been 3D printed. These printers are also helping people in a big way. Replacement bones and body parts can now be printed, and this is just the beginning. Looking to the future, this technology has many promising possibilities in the medical world.
3d printed human ear, belekekin, Shutterstock
Imagine replacing your leg or arm with a manmade one. Our legs must be strong enough to hold our weight, yet also be able to bend and absorb force without breaking. An arm must have similar properties. Therefore, the engineering that goes into making a prosthetic limb is quite amazing. An even greater accomplishment is being able to print one.
In 2008, the first printed prosthetic leg was made. A prosthetic is a man-made device that replaces a missing body part. Printing legs and sockets is superior to old processes because of its speed and accuracy. The socket attaches the prosthetic leg or arm to the body. 3D printed sockets must correctly fit the specific patient and hold the prosthetic leg in place. Designing and molding a socket can take weeks. In comparison, scanning the dimensions and printing a socket takes a few hours. Printed legs are also custom made to fit. To do this, the remaining leg and area that the leg will be attached to are both 3D scanned. This allows the printed leg to be as close as possible to the remaining leg. Their dimensions differ by mere millimeters.
On top of their speed of production, 3D printers use strong and resilient materials. A popular one is titanium. This element is extremely strong, lightweight, and hypoallergenic. A titanium leg will be able to support a person whether they wish to walk, jump, or run on it. It will not feel heavy when attached and, since it is hypoallergenic, the person’s body will not react to or reject the leg.
Other body parts have also been printed, such as ears and noses. These are made from silicone. Like prosthetic limbs, printed ears and noses are much cheaper to make than sculpted body parts. They also better match the patient’s skin tone.
The MakerBot Cupcake CNC, Bre Pettis, Wikimedia Creative Commons 2.0
Many breakthroughs in engineering begin with a discovery. In 2002, Professor Makoto Nakamura made his. Nakamura is a medical researcher who lives in Japan. Currently, he is working on printing human organs. Someday, he hopes to print a working heart.
For over ten years, Nakamura has been improving printing technology. He noticed that the ink drops from an inkjet printer are around the same size as the cells in our bodies. Inkjet printers are the common printers that you probably have at home. With this realization, he started changing 3D printing technology. In 2008, his team printed the first artificial blood vessel. You might classify an organ as a heart or a lung. However, blood vessels are organs as well. This printed “flat” organ was an incredible breakthrough! Those branched blood vessels you see on your wrists, hands, and feet could now be printed in a few minutes.
It turns out that printing the synthetic tissue was the easy part. Synthetic is another way of saying “man-made”. The more difficult task was having strong blood vessels that would not break when blood was pumped through them. To solve this problem, researchers grew human cells around the printed blood vessels. The human cells become strong and stable and eventually dissolve the 3D printed material. In the end, the 3D printed material, which is fiber, acts as a template. To create a blood vessel that can be transplanted into a human, human cells must be grown on this template.
Being able to print blood vessels is another example of how helpful advances in engineering can be. Researchers and doctors are looking into replacing blocked blood vessels with healthy, printed ones. Such a transplant could help people who have heart disease; which is one of the leading causes of death.
After researchers had the ability to print artificial blood vessels, they wondered, “What’s next?” The answer: larger internal organs.
As with all other printed solid objects, the organ is created layer by layer. Initially, printers could only print an organ scaffold, which is a 3D model of the organ. This scaffold had to be covered with living cells after printing occurred. Now, some printers are able to use cells as a material. 3D printer cartridges are loaded with living cells and smart gel. The gel helps provide structure for the printed organ. The printer lays down alternating layers of cells and smart gel in the shape of the organ. After printing, the organ is cooled and the smart gel is washed away so that only living cells remain.
Printed organs have already gone to good use. We are now able to scan a person’s heart and print a precise model of it. Doctors can have a better understanding of a patient’s heart because of such models. Doctors can also prepare for surgery by studying a printed model.
Both printed blood vessels and larger organs might soon be used to test the effectiveness of new drugs. Just as with blood vessels, printed organs could also be used to replace a failing organ in a patient. This would help solve the problem of the growing organ donor list. Currently, over 123,000 people in the United States need a lifesaving organ transplant. If we can someday print and use organs for transplantations, this number will be greatly reduced.
New and improved technology will be used more and more often to improve health, demonstrating that engineers too can save lives.
In addition to helping the medical world, 3D printers have many other uses. These marvelous machines are assisting dogs and even astronauts! The article below will teach you more about what engineers are doing with these modern printers.