3D Printing Storms Healthcare

Not all new technologies are emphatically embraced by the healthcare industry, but 3D printing adoption is charging forward at an impressive pace, finding a home within a wide cross section of specialties. The ramp up in activity is leading to improved outcomes, and increased revenue for the fledgling 3D printing industry. According to a January study, the medical market accounted for $1.2 billion in 3D printing spending in 2013, with analyst projections of reaching $4 billion by 2018. 3D Systems Corp, the largest manufacturers of 3-D printers, draws 20 percent of its annual revenue from the healthcare sector.

In surgery, 3D printers are being used to create models of organs that can be held and reveal a great deal more for surgeons than traditional imaging studies. The models are used to plan and practice surgeries prior to the actual event. 3D printers are also being used to create patient specific implants, like stents, that fit the exact needs of the individual receiving it. In teaching hospitals, 3D printed anatomical structures are replacing outdated teaching methods to help train students on how to perform a procedure, and correct an abnormality.

At Children’s Hospital Peoria in Illinois, 3D printed models are being used to prepare for and practice pediatric heart surgeries prior to the real thing. Recently, a 3D printed rendering of a patient’s heart revealed significant holes in the internal structures of the organ, a condition that both MRI and CT scans missed. The ability to look at a realistic copy of the heart prior to the surgery helped surgeons realize that the procedure they had planned would not fix the problem, and may well have complicated the underlying issues.

Last week, surgeons at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital used 3D printed splints to repair the airway of an 18-month old child who suffers from a condition that causes the airway to collapse, even when on a ventilator. The condition typically corrects itself by the age of three, but in serious cases like this one, surgical intervention is necessary in the interim. The splits were printed based on CT scan information to ensure a snug fit, and over time, the splints used will biodegrade, eliminating the need for an additional procedure to remove them later on.

While personalized implants and advanced alternatives to traditional imaging are a reality today, there are new 3D printing based technologies just on the horizon that are equally exciting. Researchers at Northwestern University are working to improve performance of the implantable defibrillator by giving it more sophisticated sensors. Currently, the defibrillator monitors the heart via two leads that can, and do, erroneously trigger a shock to the heart from time to time. Researchers are working on improving the accuracy of these defibrillators by creating a 3D wrap that forms exactly to the patient’s heart and that contains a wide array of sensors and connects to the defibrillator.

Organovo, a biomedical research firm, is taking 3D printing to the next level with technology that prints functional human tissue that can be used to create basic human organs that could not be used as fully functional implants, but could be used by pharmaceutical companies to test drugs in the pre-clinical trial phase.

Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine is taking organ printing one step further, with its ongoing effort to create a printer capable of generating fully functional, on-demand organs for use as implants. Printing functional human organs is, as one would expect, increasingly complex the more sophisticated the organ. As Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine explains, “We’re going after flat structures first like skin, tubular structures like blood vessels next, and then hollow, non-tubular organs like bladders.” Wake Forest’s research team is currently working to engineer replacement tissues and organs for 30 different areas of the body.

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