It’s Technology Tuesday!
One of the most exciting technologies of today is 3D printing. It has been gaining momentum this past year and not just in one field, but in every field. People have 3D printed chocolate, music records, a gun, meat, jewelry, handcuff keys, and pretty much everything else you could imagine.
A 3D printer prints 3D objects. While the definition is intuitive, the reality of this idea might take a second to wrap you head around. The object is printed one layer at a time. You can print in plastic, metal and even food.
It is all SO exciting. But before you get carried away and move to Mars and print yourself a nice little home in space, lets talk about a whole new frontier for 3D printing: medicine.
3D printing plays the role of hero for people needing to reconstruct their ear.
Researchers imaged a person’s healthy ear, created a digital image, and 3D printed a mold of the ear. They injected the mold with a gel (mostly collagen–a structural protein–and also cartilage cells). The collagen holds the structure of the mold after the mold is removed, and cartilage cells replace the collagen with cartilage. This is a fast and cheap way to grow an ear that looks very natural. The great thing is this process uses the patient’s own cells to grow the ear instead of the current uncomfortable metal and Styrofoam alternatives, or crafting an ear from the patient’s rib cartilage. They hope to have their first human transplant in 3 years.
In this case, researchers only printed a mold for cells to grow on. The idea is that one day we will be able to 3D print the cells directly.
Cartilage is one of the easier tissues to try to replicate in the lab because it doesn’t need a blood supply. Bone on the other hand, needs blood.
Just over a week ago, the US had it’s first 3D printed skull replacement surgery.
The patient’s CT scan’s were used to create a CAD file, which is essentially the blueprint the 3D printer uses. This creates a perfect fit. The patient had 75% of his skull replaced by a special material that allows the patient’s bone to grow over it, like a scaffold. The material also allows X-rays to pass through which is as great for a physician who’d like to identify any problems, as it is for the patient who can avoid headaches at airline security checkpoints.
This technology will be applicable for all sorts of bones. When physician’s find a defect in a CT scan, they will be able to use this bone-like material to treat a physical deformity or osteoporosis to create a scaffold for the patient’s natural bone to grow on. This sort of treatment might be available in 10 years.
With the cloning and stem cell craze, many people thought we were inches away from growing organs in petri dishes. It proved to be much more difficult than that, but 3D printing might be part of the solution. Maybe in 20 years we will have developed a procedure to 3D print organs using stem cells as the “ink”. The company working on this, Organovo, printed it’s first human vein almost exactly3 years ago.
The inevitable merging of 3D print systems with surgical robots will enable in situ repairs that surgeons would never even dream about doing… At the extreme, we can imagine an ingenious solution…the organ is printed inside the patient… This is the technology of the future that so many in hospitals wait for today. – John Hewitt
If you are interested in the future of 3D printing, I really recommend reading this article. (Here’s the link again). It’s ranks about a 5 on a scale of 10 for scientific jargon. One being you slept through your high school biology class and ten being you have 12 PhDs in bio-engineering.
I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this journey with me of the past, present, near future and not-so-near future of 3D printing.
It blows my mind to think people could one day replace their stove with a 3D Food Printer. While people are so concerned with genetically modified foods, I’m curious what the response will be to growing meat for consumption–no animals were harmed in the making of this burger. There are the legal issues, like pirating music and printing guns with this technology; if you get arrested, bring your printed handcuff key’s to bail you out. The next high speed chase with the Geek Squad, police will have to find something other than cuffs to restrain them. That is all a game changer. But these advancements in medicine are life changers. A world without transplant lists doesn’t have to be just a dream anymore.
It is such an exciting field and I’m sure it will make a reappearance in future Technology Tuesdays!