Forget the idea of a monogrammed shirt or customised number plate; health sciences are personalising your treatment opportunities with tailor-made gene therapy, DNA sequencing, and even printing your very own replacement parts.
Traditionally, repairing a body part which has malfunctioned or gone missing has meant stealing from another part of the body, borrowing from a donor or having a prosthetic bolted on. But a technology that barely existed 10 years ago is providing medical science with an entirely new approach to rebuilding our bodies.
While 3D printing has been around since the early 1980s, it was until recently only the preserve of large corporations and research centres. The revolution began in 2007 with the first open source RepRap concept taking root and the first consumer printer coming to market two years later. Since then, considerable work has been done to find real-world applications for this increasingly clever and adaptable production alternative. In January 2016, 3D Systems launched its commercially available ProX DMP 320 for high precision, high throughput direct metal printing using titanium, stainless steel and nickel, demonstrating how far this technology has come in just ten years.
Advances in 3D printing technology are now benefitting a wide range of industries, notably medicine and dentistry. Avinent, the dental technology division of Vilardell Purtí, has utilized 3D scanning and printing technology in the manufacture of precision surgical grade implants. An early implementation of 3D printing recreated the structure of an individual’s jaw based on x-rays from the dentist. Using this information, a 3D computer model was generated followed by a physical 3D printed representation. Advances in digital scanning, design and modelling have enabled dentists to send detailed scans directly to Avinent where a 3D replica of the mouth can be printed, and detailed procedural information developed to aid the dental surgeon and to produce a custom prostheses for the patient.
The technology used to scan and develop 3D models and procedural planning is being used increasingly in reconstructive surgery such as face transplants. Impressive as these applications are, it is the newest developments in 3D printing, ones which effectively ‘grow’ the precise parts required for surgical work, which are truly astonishing.
Technologies involving living cells, bone, skin and even organs are being developed around the world. Such ‘bio-printing’ or ‘bio-fabrication’ processes are showing huge promise. Examples of 3D printing technology include stem-cell based cranial reconstruction in Australia, bio-printed organs being trialed in Russia, and Montana State University and Xtant Medical’s development of a system that can print a 3D resorbable bone graft. In Europe, Iberian researchers have successfully printed a 3D electrical network using carbon nanotubes and medical grade polymer and ceramic materials that can be implanted to accelerate the bone growth process.
So what does the future hold for 3D printing technology? In the case of manufactures such as Avinent, Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) – metal 3D printing and welding using a new range of alloys such as titanium and other 3D printable bio-compatible materials – continues to expand the options available for surgeons and their patients. Generally, hardware developments will enable more multi-material printing while also reducing the overall cost. New materials such as graphene and super light ceramics continue to widen the possibilities for this technology, not to mention developments in bio-printing. There is no doubt that 3D printing will shape our future.