October 12, 2014

The Tantalizing Promise of 3D Printing for Health Care

Mary MahoneyBY Mary Mahoney

J. Robinson Group Blog

Three years ago, Wake Forest Institute Director Dr. Anthony Atala took the stage in a live TED talk to create a real human kidney using living cells and a 3D printer. Though an incredible feat in and of itself, one problem persisted: Tissue needs a vascular system carrying oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to stay alive.

Two years later, an executive at Organovo, a leading tissue engineering company, told dezeen.com the reality of printed organs is still a decade or two away.

“In the next 10 years it is possible that (printed) supplemental tissues – ones that aid in regeneration, such as nerve grafts, patches to assist a heart condition, blood vessel segments or cartilage for a degenerating joint – will make it to the clinic,” said Michael Renard, an executive vice president.  “But more advanced replacement tissues will most likely be in 20 years or more.”

Fast forward just a short while to 2014, and a team from Sydney and Harvard universities has figured out how to solve the vascularization problem by printing tiny capillaries on a 3D printer.

Progress, it seems, is actually happening pretty quickly.

So what exactly is 3D printing? Some say it’s the end of the assembly-line production that dominated 20th century industry.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, was originally developed in the mid-1980’s by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems. Basically, specialized software translates almost any object into a design that can be “printed” in three dimensions. (Imagine your regular printer ink has thickness, enabling the characters to stick out from the page.) A strand of material – typically plastic, ceramic or metal — is heated, extruded and deposited in thin layers, following the predetermined computer-aided design.

This technology has been used for years by automakers and manufacturers large and small.  And as it becomes more user-friendly, people are using it to make everything from housewares to clothing, gadgets and jewelry.

One of the most “Jetson-esque” advances has been in the area of edibles, enabling users to make chocolate, pizza – even ravioli –  at the push of a button.

Businessweek in January 2014 reported a collaboration between Hershey and 3D Systems, and announced that a revolutionary 3D food printer for the home, called the ChefJet, will be available soon.

The military is also exploring the technology’s potential for improving their much-maligned ready-to-eat meals, or MRE’s, for troops on deployment, according to defenseone.com.

Among the leaders in the field is a company called Modern Meadow, which aims to print beef and leather. The implications of creating and eating real, yet 3D-printed, meat are enormous for the livestock industry, the environment, and the public.

If you are curious to use a 3D printer yourself, many public libraries  already have them for the curious to experiment with.  Not surprisingly, they’re a big draw with children, who may well end up looking upon 3D printing as simply the new standard.

Amazon, Staples and Home Depot are now selling the printers.

In the health-care industry, the well-known orthodontics brand Invisalign creates tens of thousands of clear braces a year using 3D technology. 3D printing has also been widely used to customize hearing aids and prosthetics. And it’s being used as an enhanced surgical assistive tool, where a plastic replica is created to help doctors better visualize the affected area prior to operating.

In the tissue arena, bioprinting is evolving rapidly, enabling faster, safer and cheaper clinical trials and offering alternatives to traditional skin grafts. The Wake Institute has partnered with the armed forces to create a technique that prints cells directly onto a person’s wound.

There are also promising uses in pediatrics, since younger patients may not easily adapt to adult-size medical equipment.  Stratasys, for example, has created a special suit to help children with compromised joint mobility.

3D printers for the average, untrained person are still a bit complicated.  But the applications appear almost limitless. It may be a little while before your 12-year-old can go to the local library and print you a new kidney, but maybe not as long as you think.

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