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How Makers Could Change the (Medtech) World

Medical device innovation is being democratized--at least for a handful of applications including prosthetics and diabetes monitoring technology.

Brian Buntz

Liam, then five years old, shows off his Robohand.

Slowly but surely, the so-called Maker Movement is beginning to have an influence on the medical device sector, bringing a dramatically different approach to product development to the industry and turning people with no experience developing medical devices into healthcare technology tinkerers.

Consider the case of the Robohand, a prosthetic hand developed by the Australian woodworker Richard van As, who lost four fingers in an accident in 2011. Working together with the U.S.-based special-effects designer Ivan Owen, the two created the low-cost Robohand using a MakerBot Replicator 2 desktop 3-D printer.

While traditional upper-body prosthetics can range in price from $3000 to $30,000, a mid-range desktop 3-D printer can be had for less than $3000. The Robohand itself costs approximately $150 to construct when factoring in all mechanical costs.

But the Robohand is not an isolated example. Its creators uploaded the design for the device into, enabling anyone in the world with an Internet access to access plans for the device, enabling them to modify the design or to use it as a starting point for a new design.

"There are now hundreds of different prosthetics available on Thingiverse for free to download for anyone," says Johan-Till Broer, public relations manager at Makerbot (New York City).

The website boasts that it has helped distribute at least one 3-D printed hand in 40 countries across the world.  

"This is a game changer in the space for people who can't afford traditional expensive prosthetics," Boer says. "And parents with children needing prosthetic hands can now print out a series of custom devices for their children as they grow."

"And it's not just prosthetics--it is really across the board," Broer says. "Surgeons are printing out models of organs. Then you have really innovative experimental use cases as well. At the Feinstein Institute in New York, they used the Replicator 2x--an experimental 3-D printer with two heads, to print out scaffolding for a trachea repair. One head printed a PLA scaffolding while the other was a modified print head to print living cells."

Broer points to another interesting use case covered in Make magazine: A man name Michael Balzer sought to help his wife, Pamela Shavaun Scott, after she was diagnosed with a 3-cm brain tumor. He used her MRI files to print out a model of her skull and then mailed it to her surgeon, who was able to successfully do so using a less-invasive procedure than was typically used for this type of tumor.

3-D printing is a promising technology for healthcare industries that are not well served by traditional market dynamics, says Sefi Attias, the CTO of Tikkun Olam Makers. Normal market forces are not geared to serve most people with disabilities, for instance. "When companies do create products for these people, they are often expensive and thus not accessible to a lot of people. We see projects that make senses as an Open Source project but not a traditional product because no business model exists for them yet," Attias says.

Examples of such DIY medical-related projects are beginning to appear in the software world as well. One of the most prominent is the Nightscout continuous glucose monitor in the cloud. The open source technology relays real-time access to a Dexcom G4 continuous glucose monitor from computers, smartphones and tablets, and the Pebble smartwatch, enabling trusted friends and family to help keep any eye on continuous glucose data. While Dexom itself is working to bring similar features to the market, as a WSJ piece explained last year, the Nightscout credo, or rather, hashtag, proclaims "#WeAreNotWaiting" for such functionality. Still, the developers of the Nightscout are working with both Dexcom and FDA with the hope they will get the agency's stamp of approval to commercialize it in the United States.

Learn more about cutting-edge medical devices at MD&M Philadelphia, October 7-8, 2015.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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