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Astronauts 3D Print the First Medical Supplies in Space, Which Can Also Teach Us More About Healthcare on Earth

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3d4mdEarlier this month, we told you about Dr. Julielynn Wong, a medical doctor, scientist, and the founder of social enterprise 3D4MD, and her ongoing project to 3D print medical tools in space. She has been working on this endeavor for quite some time, sharing the results of a study she completed with another researcher in 2014 in the journal Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. Last year, she continued her research and became the first person to 3D print medical supplies in the bleak environment of the Mars Desert Research Station. And now, all of that hard work has paid off: less than a week ago, on January 11, astronauts 3D printed the first medical supplies off Earth, on what is being likened to a Star Trek replicator.

Among the most common injuries astronauts suffer are hand injuries. They can’t take every single thing they may possibly need with them up into space, and until now, it wasn’t possible to make custom-fitted splints for astronauts in space. Dr. Wong used the following to 3D print a custom mallet finger splint for astronauts:

  1. Laser hand scan saved from the fitting process for spacesuit gloves
  2. Free software
  3. Made In Space’s AMF 3D printer
3d-printed-custom-mallet-finger-splint-in-space-2

[Image: NASA]

On one of the splints that the team at 3D4MD created, they added a star pattern to highlight the fact that it was made among the stars. Both of the splint models that were created were designed to be worn without a Velcro strap, as this material may not be readily available for astronauts.

3d-printed-custom-mallet-finger-splint-in-space

[Image: NASA]

Mallet finger injuries, or extensor tendon injuries, are common on Earth, as well as in space. When an extended finger meets with blunt force and is jammed, it can result in a ruptured or stretched extensor digitorum tendon. Patients experience numbness and pain and are unable to extend the finger. If these types of injuries are not treated properly, they can cause permanent and crippling hand deformities. Research shows that the best treatment is custom-fitted, handmade splints, like the ones Dr. Wong created. This is fortunate for astronauts, as they are now able to fabricate these onboard the ISS themselves, using a 3D printer.

2015 3D4MD Tweet

2015 3D4MD tweet

However, according to 3D4MD, there is a “global shortage of skilled healthcare workers who can make these custom-fitted splints, especially in rural communities.” 3D4MD isn’t only focused on 3D printing medical supplies for astronauts: their mission states they will “use low-cost technologies to save lives, time and money.” Dr. Wong’s team of global Medical Makers are working hard to develop a way to use cellphones to scan patients with mallet finger injuries, and 3D print custom splints on-site using solar-powered 3D printers and recycled plastic. This could save both money and time, as well as “improve health outcomes for the 45% of the world’s population who live in rural areas and who lack access to healthcare.”

This project is a perfect example of how advancing space medicine can also help healthcare for the people of Earth. 3D4MD’s project was completely funded by revenue from their keynote speeches, 3D printing consulting services, and workshops. Dr. Wong is also continuing her work on building a “digital library of crowd-sourced, quality-tested, 3D printable solutions for unlimited humanitarian use.”

[Source: 3D4MD]

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