Many people might find it very preposterous when we link printing and medical science. But as a matter of fact, 3D printing isn’t just any random printing. It is basically ‘additive manufacturing’. What it means is that a 3D printer can efficiently print layers of plastic and even metal thereby resulting in creation of three-dimensional object. If we look at the 3D printing history timeline, one of the top 5 industries where 3D printing has marked its territory is medicine. The number of ailments in today’s time has increased exponentially and scientists have been focusing their research on finding cure for critical ailments like Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s just to name a few.

One of the best medical example in 3D printing history timeline

One highly challenging and quiet popular technology, Bio printing has gained momentum just recently. The needs for tissues and organs suitable for transplantation is being addressed by 3D bio-printing. As compared with other non-biological use of 3D printers, 3D bio-printing involves additive complexities like choice of materials, cell types, growth, challenges related to sensitivity of living cells and process of construction of tissues. In order to cater to these complex processes, the integration of technology, engineering, biomaterial science, cell biology, physics and medicine, all integrate and come together. 3D bio-printing has already been used to generate and transplant several tissues like multi-layered skin, bone, vascular grafts, tracheal splints, cartilaginous structures, heart tissues, etc. It is also applied in development of 3D bio-printed tissue models for research and drug discovery and toxicology.

3d printing medical advances – 3d printed heart

How did medical 3D printing companies bump their visibility to common people?

Out of a few medical structures that 3D printer can manufacture, one very essential and beneficial structure is Stem cells. Stem cells are said to have amazing regenerative properties known to enable reproduction of many different types of human tissues. Heriot- Watt University of Edinburgh are bio printing stem cells in their university research lab. This is just one such university, there are many other medical 3D printing companies who are trying to manufacture and study if a bio printed stem cell would work as efficiently as a normal stem cell.

Looking back at 3D printing history timeline, 3D printing first made medical advances which were noticed by everyone were the hearing devices and invisalign braces. Now we have 3D printed implants, 3D printed models for surgical practice, 3D printed bone replacement, even 3D printed human tissues. In 2013, surgeons at the University of Michigan saved the life of a 3-month-old boy who had been born with severely weak tissue in his airway. They designed, 3-D-printed and surgically implanted a scaffold-like tube to hold his airway open. After three years, as the baby’s airway tissue grows over and around the tube, the scaffold will dissolve harmlessly. [Source]

Interesting case studies highlighting recent incidents in the history of 3D printing in medicine

Another interesting medical subject is called bone grafting, which generally involves replacing missing or damaged bone in particularly serious injury where the bone fails to repair itself. There has been more development and study regarding bone grafting and using 3D printing as a solution. Many medical 3D printing companies have joined the research and it has been found that the difficulties in bone grafting surgery can be eliminated by enabling the printing of large and complex shaped implants. The new method which is being studied in the research involved 3D printing too build cartilage which has been proven to help bone growth. Professor Daniel Kelly of Amber who is leading the research in Dublin said, “While the technology has already been used to engineer relatively simple tissues such as skin, blood vessels and cartilage, engineering more complex and vascularized solid organs, such as bone, is well beyond the capabilities of currently available bio printing technologies. In addition, this bio printing approach could also be used in the development of the next generation of biological implants for knee and hip replacements. The next stage of this process is to aim to treat large bone defects and then integrate the technology into a novel strategy to bio print new knees.” [Source] History of 3D printing in medicine took another major turn when its contributions on cancer research were highlighted. The study of cancer cells and other disease cells were done in order to more effectively and systematically study how tumors grow and develop with the help of bio-printing. A study in Drexel University led by Professor Wei Sun, PhD, along with his team of students have made huge advancement in how 3D printing will change the way humans fight cancer. By combining existing cervical cancer cells and biomaterials, the team processes the combination through their 3D printer and creates cancerous tumors for study and research. As opposed to 2D models of tumors, 3D versions contain realistic tissues and more stimulated tumor characteristics. Sun explains that “the additional dimensionality of 3D culture leads to differences in cell activities, including morphology, proliferation, and gene and protein expression.” Due to the more complicated structural build shown on a 3D model, treatment that may not have worked on a 2D model is more likely to work because of the 3D model’s accuracy in depicting real tumors. In addition to improved precision, testing on the model is more beneficial than direct animal or human testing because the model can produce more probable results without causing harm to a subject. 3D printing may seem like a new concept, but Sun has been in the business since the early 2000’s. In 2002, he patented a 3D printer that printed cells, one of the first of its kind. Recently, Sun and the team patented one of their 3D printer models which keep a majority of cells usable for experimentation as opposed to existing models [Source].

3d printing medical advances

Even though 3D printing enabled a new kind of future with huge ginormous steps in medical advancement, there is a flip side of this coin as well. The disadvantages of 3D printing in medicine are also equally popular and resulting in people being cautious about this technology in the medical field. There is unrealistic expectations and hype surrounding the medical 3D printing companies . Due to exaggerating comments by media, government and even researchers, the expectation of the common people increases exponentially. This has promoted unrealistic projections especially regarding how soon some of the more exciting possibilities like organ printing will become a reality. Although the researchers and government supported studies have started, but by giving false pretenses, common people who are suffering and holding on to hopes are building nothing but unrealistic expectations. Another disadvantage of 3D printing in medicine is the safety and security issues that merits serious concerns. 3D printers have already been employed for criminal purposes, such as printing illegal items like guns and gun magazines, master keys, and ATM skimmers. These occurrences have highlighted the lack of regulation of 3D printing technology. In theory, 3D printing could also be used to counterfeit substandard medical devices or medications. Although 3D printing should not be banned, its safety over the long term will clearly need to be monitored. In 2012, in response to the news that a functioning plastic handgun had been 3D printed, several local and state legislators introduced bills banning access to this technology. However, such fear-based policy responses could stifle the culture of openness necessary for 3D printing to thrive. Such a ban could push 3D printing underground at the expense of important scientific, medical, and other advances. There have already been reports of “garage biology” being conducted that could potentially lead to innovations in the life sciences. However, it is being conducted in secrecy to avoid interference from law enforcement—even though the research is legal. [Source]

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