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How Medical 3D Printing Is Changing Our Future

The technology has the chance to have significant impacts

10Feb

It sounds like science fiction, but medical 3-D printing is changing our future. Technology is changing so fast that yesterday’s fantasies are today’s realities. Some futurists say that in 50 to 75 years we will barely recognize our lives.

What is 3-D printing?

It is printing on a three dimensional surface, in layers. Using the technology, scientists are already printing out skin, kidneys and even a replica of a beating heart. An article on the CNBC website says that soon we will expect an average human to live 100 to 110 years. That life will be improved because of the medical possibilities of 3-D printing. If a person loses a limb, doctors will print them a replacement, layer-by-layer. The process was developed in the 1980s by an American engineer named Charles Hull. The 'ink' used in the process is an acrylic substance that becomes solid when it is exposed to UV light. Usually that exposure is to a laser.

The process is Already Used Medically.

Although 3-D printing is being used commercially on many fronts, and even Amazon and Staples offer the service to customers, the most promising use is in medicine. In 2012, according to a New Yorker article, doctors at the University of Michigan’s CS Mott Children’s Hospital performed a ground-breaking surgery on a three-month-old boy. The child had a condition that caused the structures of his airway to be fragile and they kept collapsing. The doctors created a 3-D 'map' of the child’s throat, something that is possible using a CT scan, and then designed and printed a stent to reinforce the airway. The printed implant will last for three-to-five years, during which the child’s tissues will grow to replace it, then dissolve. On another front, orthodontists and prosthodontists use 3-D printing to design Invisalign, a brace alternative, aligners to straighten teeth.

What About the Future?

We have already seen 3-D printing technology used successfully to produce an exoskeleton that enables people with spinal injuries to walk. Now the science is turning inward to implants and research. The technology is being used to study Alzheimer’s Disease and promises some real advances. If we live longer, and healthier, it might be because as parts wear out, we will print new ones to replace them. We already have a picture archiving and communication system that allows us to store and retrieve huge amounts of medical imagery. It is not that far a stretch to envision 3-D maps of our bodies inner workings, captured and stored until they are needed to design replacement knees or hips. It will all be done cheaper, too. A writer recently witnessed an experiment with the new technology. There were several containers, some containing collagen, some fibroblasts and some the acrylic 'ink.”'The doctor found a multi-dimensional image on the computer of the tissue he wished to replicate. Then he placed a clean slide under the containers and told the printer to print it. It took a very short time before a 'gelatinous substance' was deposited onto the slide. The machine didn’t finish the procedure, but the possibilities were certainly apparent.

The future of medicine may undergo a radical change when we no longer must rely on harvested limbs and organs for transplants. The debate over the use of fetal stem cells may have quieted completely. Certainly the quality of life for older adults as joints wear out and are replaced, will improve vastly. There is promise in the treatment and, perhaps, the disappearance of diseases like Alzheimer’s, and in treating birth deformities. Although it isn’t creation itself, it is exciting and barely believable, near-enough to revolutionize medical treatment and affect quality of life for multitudes of patients not even born yet.

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