A look at new healthcare applications in the 3-D printing pipeline.
Dhruv Bhate, PhD
In most fields revolutionized by 3-D printing, the growth primarily stems from the application of this technology to existing concepts and products. Major automotive, aerospace, and defense industries are now manufacturing 3-D printed components that were previously made with traditional manufacturing methods such as casting, molding, and forming.
When it comes to the healthcare industry, in addition to improving existing methods for the treatment and prevention of human sickness, 3-D printing is enabling never-before-seen breakthroughs. This is primarily because of two capabilities that are unique to 3-D printing: customization and layer-wise additive manufacturing.
The ability to enable cost-effective and rapid individualized production is the main reason why the healthcare application most quickly transformed by 3-D printing has been the production of hearing aids. Ten million 3-D printed hearing aids are already in circulation because the unique advantages of this process cut in half the number of steps required to fit an individual with a custom device. It's not just ear canals that make humans unique. Every hip transplant requires an exacting fit to an individual's body. Every surgery requires precision results within a unique physiology.
In addition to its customization benefits, 3-D printing is fundamentally an additive process that enables deposition of material one layer at a time. This concept has been applied to making everything from plastic prototypes to jet engine fuel nozzles and could conceivably be used to make organic structures as well. In the long run, we'll be replacing kidneys, livers, and even hearts with 3-D printed organs, reversing today's tragic reality where 21 people die each day because a needed transplant can't be located.
Here's a review of the exciting new healthcare applications in the 3-D printing pipeline. Some are ready today, some need more review, and some are further away, but all will be disrupting the healthcare industry soon.
Alongside the hearing aids I've already mentioned, the dental industry has widely embraced 3-D printing to meet the customization needs of patients. Invisalign braces are not themselves 3-D printed, but their molds are. More than five million 3-D printed metal dental copings are used each year for the production of crowns and bridges.
3-D printing has been successfully used during presurgical planning. When a team of surgeons at the St. Thomas Hospital in London needed to save the life of infant Mina Khan, they made a life-sized 3-D replica of her heart to plan the operation and design the patch that repaired the hole between her ventricles.
When making a titanium implant, the surface facing the bone needs a porous structure to facilitate bone ingrowth. Historically, that has meant designing a smooth implant and then adding a textured layer. But electronic beam melting can make a 3-D printed titanium implant with built-in texture. That processes allows an exceptionally exact fit between the bone and implant, making 3-D printed implants more compatible than those made by traditional manufacturing techniques.
Casts and Braces
Three-dimensional printing allows the manufacture of casts that are lighter and less restrictive than their plaster counterparts. Best of all, they're waterproof. The same process can create braces to help in cases of bruising, strains, and joint disease. This technology hasn't caught on yet, but in 2015, Maxwell Capital made a $100,000 investment in Russian-based Zdvaprint, which specializes in these casts.
In 2013, FDA approved the first 3-D printed biocompatible polymer implant, Oxford Performance Material's custom cranial grafts made from a bone-like material designed to cooperate with the body. Because the material is osteoconductive, it provides structure for bone growth perpetuated by the native bone.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are currently developing iron- and magnesium-based materials to repair bone fractures that are intended to be fully absorbed into the body over time. Bioconductive implants are especially useful in children, whose bodies grow quickly and present challenges to traditional, immutable implants. As approval for these materials and devices becomes more widespread, you can expect big implications for pediatric care.
Patient Specific Instrumentation (PSI)
The ability to print out surgical instrumentation tailored to the individual holds the promise of more precise surgical intervention. Custom guides designed to exactly align bone cuts and place screws may lead the way to quicker, more dependable interventions. As the practice is refined and streamlined, PSI could become a routine part of dozens of types of operations.
In August 2015, FDA approved the first ever 3-D printed drug, called Spritam, used in the treatment of epilepsy. The significance of using 3-D printing to manufacture these pills is that it allows tailoring dosage to individual patients' needs and also creates a layered structure that allows for faster dissolution and absorption by the body.
Printing rigid structures, like bone and cartilage, is an easier hurdle to clear for the 3-D printing industry. Printing nonrigid structures that can collapse under their own weight, such as heart tissue, presents a problem. But researchers at Carnegie Mellon are developing a gel-based printing process designed to overcome that challenge.
The demand for transplanted organs and the ability to test pharmaceuticals on printed tissue presents a tremendous opportunity to revolutionize healthcare. These technologies may be in the early stages of research and development, but they are coming, and their impact will be significant.
Medical Device Research by Practitioners
Engineers have used 3-D printing to make prototypes for decades. One of the key advantages of the technology is that it allows people without manufacturing skill to make the things they need. This is now true for doctors, nurses, and researchers. In the past, if they came up with a new idea, they had to find someone to make it. With 3-D printing, they can make a prototype in their lab, test it, iterate, and improve the design.
If you aren't already focused on how 3-D printing is disrupting the healthcare industry, you should be. Wherever there is need for customization, 3-D printing is positioned for success. And nowhere is there more need for individualized production than in healthcare. The only reason 3-D printing has revolutionized other industries first is that the technological hurdles and regulatory processes are more intense when it comes to the human body. But those issues can be addressed and are increasingly found in the rear-view mirror. The time to start making your plan for the coming 3-D printing healthcare revolution is today.
Dhruv Bhate, PhD, is senior technologist at PADT Inc. Reach him at email@example.com.
[image courtesy of iStockphoto.com user mailfor]