While health care has been slow to adopt electronic medical records and other new technologies, it has been quick to embrace 3D printing, and with good reason — this revolutionary technology is improving patient care, cutting costs, and in some cases even saving lives. The 3D printing market for health care will generate more than $4 billion by 2018, according to a report by Visiongain.
Here’s a look at how 3D printing works, and some of its most promising applications in health care.
3D printing: 101
In 1986, Charles Hull co-founded 3D Systems to commercialize the technology he invented: stereolithography, commonly known as 3D printing. 3D printing essentially works by taking a digital file, cutting it into slices, and layering them on top of each other to build a product. Called “additive manufacturing,” this process mimics the way nature works and is less wasteful and frequently less expensive than subtractive methods such as forging, milling, or casting.
Using 300 materials from titanium to sugar, 3D printers can make everything from an airplane bracket that’s 84 percent lighter than traditionally manufactured versions to prosthetics for children who have lost limbs to landmines. Dental implants, hearing aids, and eyeglasses are already being created with 3D printing. The possibilities are virtually limitless, since the technology is getting better, faster, and cheaper all the time.
Hearing aids and ears
Most hearing aids are manufactured using 3D printing, and have been for almost 10 years, reports Forbes. What used to be a nine-step process that took weeks has been shortened to a three-step process that can be completed within a day. The result is a completely customized hearing aid tailored to each individual patient.
And now, researchers are printing actual ears. Cornell University bioengineers and physicians used 3D printing and injectable gels from living cells to make artificial ears that look and act like human ears. Similar research on the ear has been done at Princeton University and Johns Hopkins University. And British company Fripp Design & Research has figured out how to print soft-tissue prostheses such as ears and noses using biocompatible materials.
Eyes and glasses
Can 3D printing one day cure blindness? Research is certainly pointing in that direction. Researchers at the University of Cambridge printed living retinal eye cells from adult rats, the first time anyone has successfully printed adult nerve cells. This is a step toward developing treatments for retinal diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration, two of the biggest causes of blindness. Organizations also use 3D printers to create prosthetic eyes. In late 2013, Fripp Design disclosed that it can make 150 prosthetic eyes per hour at a fraction of the cost of those usually made by hand.
3D printing may also be the solution to bringing much-needed eyeglasses to developing countries. The World Health Organization estimates that roughly 314 million people are visually impaired, with nearly 90 percent of blind and visually impaired people living in poor countries. Corrective eye care is often an impossibility or scarcity due to lack of doctors, eye care professionals, and eyeglasses.
However, using a 3D printed material, researchers have developed adaptive spectacles that offer users the ability to adjust the refractive power of each lens themselves. This vision correction technology has been tested in African populations and has proven to be a successful, viable method. The glasses are durable, fully customized for the wearer, and can be produced in under an hour for a cost of $1 per pair.
Printed body parts brought in $537 million last year, up about 30 percent from the previous year, according to a recent article in the journal, Nature. The Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, along with three other research universities in Europe and Australia, have jointly launched a master’s program in bioprinting, the technique of using 3D printers to grow human tissue.
In January of 2014, a company called Organovo delivered its first 3D-printed liver to a third-party lab for experimentation and testing. The company is also developing 3D kidney tissues and breast cancer tissues. Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is conducting similar work, exploring 3D printing’s potential in organs such as the skin and liver.
These are just some of the ways 3D printing is being applied in health care. It is also being used to create mechanical hands and skull prosthetics, 3D casts to set broken bones, and a tracheal splint for a baby with a collapsed bronchus. See more about how 3D printing is reshaping health care in this Information Week article.