3D printers are all the rage now, even though their basic principles and the basic technology behind them have been in use since the 80’s. Back then, however, the main use was to create prototypes and the running costs, maintenance and overall equipment costs were way too high to be tailored for home consumer use. Now, with the expansion of this technology in everybody’s home, it’s no wonder 3D printing is starting to evolve and uncover new potential applications for itself. And perhaps one of the most exciting, most promising and definitely most daring ones is that of 3D printed organs or body parts.
Revolutionizing Anatomy – 3D Printed Body Parts
What Organs and Body Parts Can We 3D Print?
It may come as a surprise for you, but we’re already 3D printing body parts. Whether it’s special organs or scaffolds for cells, tissue and even body parts, we’re already doing it. Sure, there’s a bunch of research needed to perfect these practices, and better 3D printers which will undoubtedly follow will make the work easier, more accurate and better in quality. But the bottom line is that we are already doing it with the technology we have at our disposal, and these are some of the things we can create at the moment.
Probably among the easiest to imagine being done with 3D printers are the prosthetic limbs. However, things are not as simple as they may seem – real, professionally-worked prosthetic limbs are way more complex, sophisticated and all-encompassing than their 3D printed counterparts. The real ones offer more flexibility and more options in terms of movement for the patient. But imagine a child needing a prosthetic leg or hand – the kid will grow out of it in a very short time, and the parents would then need to invest in a new, possibly thousands of dollars’ worth prosthetic. Only so that the child will grow out of that one in a couple of years after – overall, it’s a huge financial strain for most families, even in the developed world, not to mention third world countries where these services are seldom available. So while a professional prosthetic would cost a few thousand dollars, a 3D printed prosthetic costs only tens of dollars to create. The designs are there already, with a lot of people working on improving them based on what 3D printers are able to do at the moment, and the materials are fairly cheap and weigh a lot less than their prosthetic counterparts. So for instances where functionality is outweighed by cost and the need to replace the prosthetic limbs quite often due to certain circumstances, the 3D printed prosthetic limbs are definitely a great alternative.
Eyes, Blood Vessels, Heart Valves
Glass eyes are fairly commonly used by people who have lost one of their eyes in accidents or due to health issues. And they’re great, but they’re expensive. It comes at no surprise that there’s a market for cheaper, easier to produce and more realistic artificial eyes. And that’s another thing 3D printers can create right now: prosthetic eyes. Faster production queues, cheaper to manufacture and easier to replace – all the ingredients that should make prosthetic eye wearers very happy.
Blood vessels may seem pretty straightforward to create – you just basically have to 3D print a hollow tube, right? Well, replicating or copying biology is almost never that simple, and this is no exception. Blood vessels not only are more than just hollow tubes, they are basically living structures themselves. Live cells line the blood vessel, and these cells are able to contract, expand and heal themselves if something goes wrong. Simply printing up a hollow tube won’t create any of those characteristics. Never mind the fact that some blood vessels are so tiny that they are basically feeding into other rather small organs, like our eyes and ears. Wanting to print functioning biological models of those organs would also require 3D printers to be able to print those tiny, nearly microscopic blood vessels as well. Luckily enough, there’s promising research underway which shows that there is a viable option of creating those blood vessels. Larger ones can be created right now on special scaffolding which then is populated with living cells programmed to replicate and cover said scaffold.
Last in this category, the heart valve is probably one of the biggest breakthroughs in 3D printing. Cornell University scientists have managed to create a functioning one back in 2013, and have even published a paper showing that indeed, creating a functioning, live and growing heart valve which can be used in patients who suffer from conditions such as aortic valve disease.
Ears, Bones, Liver and Skin
3D PRINTED ORGANS – Ears are also pretty straightforward, but there’s a catch. While it can be argued that simply printing out an exact replica of your other ear may not be complicated with the scanning and 3D printing technology we have today, this practice also goes a bit deeper than simply creating a plastic ear. Most damaged ears in humans come with damage to the hearing capabilities of that ear as well. To that end, prosthetic ears which are 3D printed can also include technology like hearing aids to help with restoring hearing capability as well. And considering that he ear in itself isn’t that hard to create designs for and map out accurately, the products are great looking, affordable and easy to replace for those patients who need a prosthetic ear.
3D printed bones are also a viable option these days. That’s because 3D printing machines can now handle other materials aside from just plastic. When you think of 3D printing, you think of printing in layers – and that’s exactly what medical scientists have done to create full human bones. Whether it’s vertebrae they can replace in a damaged spinal cord, or skull bits they can replace with exact matches and fits, or part of a pelvis for a hip replacement surgery. All of these apparent medical marvels are already being done with the technology we have at our disposal, albeit the materials used are not yet widely available. For the part of the pelvic bone, for example, they used titanium as a material in the 3D printed bone. Depending on the bone they want to replace with a 3D printed counterpart, other materials may be needed – and their use relies strictly on 3D printer’s technology ability to work with denser, harder, more durable and less malleable materials.
Bits of liver have also been creating using a 3D printer to make up the scaffolding to which the living cells were added and programmed to replicate and populate the scaffolding. The liver is a hugely important organ for humans, and liver transplants are among the most demanded and in-need types of transplant procedures out there. Waiting lists can be very long, and the odds of finding a good match makes the process even more painfully long for the patient. Researchers at the University of California have created 3D bioprinted liver tissue and their research spearheaded companies and other medical researchers to do the same. FDA approval for the practice could come at the turn of the next decade, marking a huge advancement in medicine and 3D biopriting alike.
Last, but definitely not least, we have skin. Burn victims, or skin tears and skin damage is hard to treat properly even these days. Skin grafts and other methods are employed to a certain extent, but the healing process is long, painful and stressful for the patient. But we’re seeing advancements in this field as well, with skin sprays being developed that, as the name suggests, spray stem cells on the affected areas and allow those cells to replicate and recreate skin tissue. However, even that method can only be used for moderate wounds at best – the deeper ones still elude scientists because more layers of the skin need to be replaced and filled. In comes 3D printing with a new, interesting concept that medical researchers are looking into and actually putting into practice – real-time 3D printing of skin cells directly on the affected burned area. There’s a scanner to gets a complete 3D image of the area, and then recreates the healthy version based on that info and starts filling out the gaps.
As you can see, 3D printing is much more than creating your run-of-the-mill keychain or art project. Their use exceeds that of practical indoor applications, and extends into medical and medical research as well. And with more and more resources being directed at 3D printers and the technology behind them, the future truly looks bright for medicine, and consequently for humanity.
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