Last month the FDA approved the very first 3D printed drug, an epilepsy medication called SPRITAM. This past June, three little boys with a condition that caused their windpipes to spontaneously collapse had their lives saved when they received 3D-printed bronchial-splint implants. As researchers continue to explore the applications of 3D printing, it has become clear that this new technology holds a myriad of opportunities in the medical industry.
3D Printed Model Cars
Image courtesy of Marc Hermans (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
3D printing has lead to higher efficiency and cost saving by producing automobile parts, fashion accessories, industrial equipment, and more. However, it also has four major applications when it comes to healthcare: prosthetics, medical devices, human tissue, and even pharmaceuticals.
3D printing has the ability to manufacture things quickly, cheaply, and efficiently. Due to the human element that is the foundation of the industry, healthcare is the one industry in which cost is outweighed by the ability to produce successful patient outcomes. However, the ability of this technology to create personalized physical treatments for a specific patient means that custom treatments can now be produced more simply and easily—it has the potential to affect millions of lives. For example, thousands of people who require prosthetic hands or forearms are unable to do so because of the high cost ($10,000-$20,000) of traditional prosthetics. 3D printing has drastically reduced the cost, time, and customization of producing these prosthetic parts to make them exceedingly more accessible to those who need them. The cost of a prosthetic produced by a 3D printer is only a few hundred dollars, and they can be manufactured by 3D printers in two days or less. 3D printing for prosthetic limbs is still limited in some areas—for example, most 3D printed prosthetic legs are unable to consistently bear the weight of the human body. However, the future of 3D printing in creating all kinds of prosthetics is extremely promising as the technology continues to develop.
Image courtesy of the FDA (https://flic.kr/p/9gFr4x) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Many medical devices, such as hearing aids and dental implants, drastically improve the lives of patients. But producing them is a complicated and time-consuming process. 3D printing can be used to manufacture these customized medical devices for patients in less than 1/7th of the time for traditional production methods. Other medical implants that can be created with 3D printing technology include hip and joint replacement—this is of particular importance for orthopedics. What’s more is that surgeons are able to use 3D printed devices to improve patient outcomes after operations. After taking a CT scan of the patient’s bones and/or organs, the data can be converted to a 3D-printable file that is used to create models and tools of various textures and transparency, depending on the patient and procedure. This allows surgeons to plan and test out complex surgeries well in advance of the actual operation. Using 3D printing in this way reduces operating time, lowers the risk of error, and overall produces better procedural results in surgery.
Image courtesy of arztsamui at freedigitalphotos.net
Unfortunately, the technology to produce 3D printed organs, such as hearts, livers, or kidneys does not yet exist. This is because the most common materials used in 3D printing are titanium, ceramic and medical-grade polymers rather than living cells. But doctors have hope that emerging technologies in 3D printing will be able to use living cells, assembled layer by layer, to create rudimentary human tissue suitable for organ replacements. Some 3D printing companies are already producing fragments of human tissue with living cells that they sell to medical researchers to test toxicity in pharmaceuticals. The next step for these companies will be to produce liver tissue fragments that can be used by doctors to patch damaged parts of human organs. Though impossible today, it is likely that soon in the future 3D printing will be applied to meld biological and/or electrical components to create functional human organs. A printed ear developed by researchers at Princeton and Johns Hopkins Universities exemplifies the future of 3D printing for human organs. In creating this 3D printed ear, researchers used materials such as hydrogel, cells to form cartilage, and nanoparticles to detect sound waves.
Photo by Frank Wojciechowsk
Last month, Aprecia Pharmaceuticals got FDA approval for their epilepsy medication, SPRITAM, which is the very first drug to be created using 3-D printing technology. This anti-seizure medication comes in the form of a dissolvable pill, which makes delivery of the medicine much easier. Doctors have noted that it can be very difficult for epilepsy patients to adhere to a treatment regime, which often results in the patient having one of more seizures if they neglect to take their medication. The manufacturers of SPRITAM believe that because of how quick and easy it is to administer this new drug, it will encourage patients to consistently adhere to a treatment regime. This has opened the door for 3D printing pharmaceuticals in various ways. The development of this drug has completely revolutionized how pharmaceutical drugs can be produced, and it has significant implications for pharmaceutical research and development. As the application of 3D printing for pharmaceutical drugs develops, 3D printers have the potential to fundamentally change how patients, doctors, and drug companies look at pharmaceuticals.
Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography from freedigitalphotos.net
The applications of 3D printing in medicine are not without their limits, but it is incredibly inspiring how this technology has already transformed many aspects of modern medicine. One can only imagine what 3D printing has in store for healthcare as researchers continue to explore better technologies and better applications.
[Sources: http://www.livescience.com/49913-3d-printing-revolutionizing-health-care.html; http://www.nature.com/news/the-printed-organs-coming-to-a-body-near-you-1.17320; http://www.forbes.com/sites/amitchowdhry/2013/10/08/what-can-3d-printing-do-here-are-6-creative-examples/; http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2015/08/11/why-it-matters-that-the-fda-just-approved-the-first-3d-printed-drug/]