3D printing – what is it & and why is it relevant to healthcare?

Posted on Posted in Anatomy, Biotechnology, Expert Contributor, Implants, Pioneering Technology, Transplants

The medical field already grows incredibly fast. We are discovering new technologies and research methods every day. On top of this rapidly evolving sector, the rate of discovery is also increasing. Basically the time it takes to discover something is becoming much quicker.

A huge development that has taken off in the last decade has been 3D printing. You may have heard of some of the things that have been made using this printing technique – for instance large art installations or engine parts. But what you may not know is the impact that this 3D printing technology has had on healthcare.

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Put simply. The impact 3D printing has had on the medical field has exploded in the last few years. It’s a faster, cheaper and more accurate method of creating new body parts that have either stopped working or need replacing. Surgeons are finding that 3D printing technology can reduce operating time, lower the risk of complications and produce better outcomes for patients through the use of 3D printed surgical models. A great recent example of the use of this technology was recently published in a pioneering study where 2 year old Mina Khan needed part of her heart replacing. What did they do? You guessed it – they printed a 3D model to visualize her heart outside her body. They also used the 3D printing technology to print the section that needed repairing! Without this groundbreaking technology, Mina would have surely died.

So now that we’ve heard of an example of 3D printing being used inside the body, what about outside of it? As we mentioned earlier, 3D printing has allowed for a much cheaper alternative to standard treatments. This is particularly obvious when we look at prosthetics. No matter which country you live in, prosthetics are very expensive. Traditional arm prosthetics typically cost between 10 and 20 thousand dollars per device. On top of that, these prosthetics can wear out over time if used a lot. In growing children, some prosthetics can be grown out of in just a few months! These problems have been addressed by 3D printing. Printing a prosthetic often now costs less than $100 and it can be customized to that particular person’s anatomy rather than a one size fits all approach.

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So what actually happens during 3D printing? How does it work? 3D printing is part of a process called additive manufacturing. What this basically means is that 3D objects are created by adding thin layers on top of each other. To begin the 3D printing process, the object you want to create is designed on a virtual object modelling program on the computer. It is then sent to the printer which has a plastic mold in it. This mold is melted and squeezed through a very thin, precise tube which creates layers based on the object you designed in the program. The mold then cools and hardens instantly into a permanent model. The most common material used in 3D printing is plastic but depending on what you are trying to create, plastic can be exchanged for many other materials. Nowadays, we can 3D print food to make amazingly detailed treats by replacing the plastic with melted chocolate. In the regenerative medical field, researchers are looking into exchanging plastic for bio-materials which means we can literally print cells onto a scaffold (also made by the printer) to print ears, noses and organs.

Recently, giant 3D printers in china printed 10 houses in 1 day for less than 5000 dollars per house!

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In summary, 3D printing clearly has many different uses, spanning many different fields and at a much lower cost. From ears to chocolate to houses, the 3D printing world is only getting started.

This week’s advice: With today’s modern technology, disabilities are rapidly becoming more manageable. If you are an amputee or have a disability that you think could be helped by 3D printing – it’s worth exploring this exciting new arena further.

This article can also be listened to on Englishwaves radio (in English)  & French Radio London (in French). For more information on TMF’s affiliates, please click here.

This report is also available in our expert contributor section where you can also learn more about Jack Grierson & his career.

Sources: http://www.livescience.com/49913-3d-printing-revolutionizing-health-care.html & http://3dprinting.com/what-is-3d-printing/

Picture Credit: http://il2.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/7847263/thumb/2.jpg

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