It’s no secret that 3D printing is changing the face of the medical field. The technology has many applications when it comes to healthcare, from custom medicines and prosthetics to tissue engineering. Two doctors from Austin Hospital in Melbourne want medical professionals to be fully aware of 3D printing potential, and recently published a paper in the Medical Journal of Australia that explains what they believe are the top five areas in which 3D printing technology has the potential to change the medical field.

Co-authors of the paper, titled ‘Three-dimensional printing in medicine,’ include Dr. Jasamine Coles-Black, Ian Chao, and Jason Chuen, the Director of Vascular Surgery at Austin Health and a Clinical Fellow with the University of Melbourne. Chuen says that 3D printing technology will transform medicine, and even has a 3D printer in his office. With help from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, his viewpoint and do-it-yourself 3D printing approach to his work have resulted in a 3D Medical Printing Laboratory at the hospital.

[Image: Flickr]

“It is a revolutionary technology that will make medical care better and faster, and more personalised. But what we need is for more medical professionals to start exploring and experimenting with what this new technology can do, because many things that we thought of as impossible are now becoming possible,” Chuen said. “I think we are moving towards a world where if you can imagine it, you will be able to print it – so we need to start imagining.”

He doesn’t think we’ll ever get to a point where fully 3D printed human organs are a possibility, but Chuen believes that someday, doctors will be able to bypass the need for some transplants by 3D printing human tissue structures that are able to perform an organ’s basic functions; that’s why the first area of potential the paper names is 3D bioprinting and tissue engineering. We’ve already seen 3D printed organoids used for research, which mimic full organs at a small scale and are built with stem cells that are stimulated to grow into the functioning unit of an organ.

“Unless there is some breakthrough that enables us to keep the cells alive while we print them, then I think printing a full human organ will remain impossible,” said Chuen. “But where there is potential is in working out how to reliably build organoids or components that we could then bind together to make them function like an organ.”

The challenge now is to scale 3D printed organoids up into a viable structure that’s able to help a failing organ inside a human patient. The issue is that cell cultures are printed in layers that are suspended in a gel, but they can die quickly inside the gel. This isn’t a problem for organoids and other small structures, which can be quickly built and then transferred back to a nutrient solution, but it is for larger structures like organs, as the first layers of cells will die out before it’s even fully 3D printed.

3D printed “polypills” can replace multiple medications with just one pill. [Image: Pixabay]

I’ve heard it said that the older you get, the more medications you have to take each day, which is why another area Chuen believes 3D printing could have a major impact on is pharmaceuticals. Instead of taking ten separate pills each day, customized 3D printed medicine could make it possible to combine all ten pills into one. Instead of embedding one drug in a pill that will dissolve and release the medicine at a specific time, multiple drugs, with multiple release times, could be put into one 3D printed polypill; this solution has actually been developed already for hypertension and diabetes patients.

A 3D printed plastic aorta. [Image: Austin Health 3D Medical Printing Laboratory]

There have been many studies about surgeons using 3D printed models for surgical pre-planning, which can safely speed up operations and offer considerable cost savings. Chuen, who says that surgical rehearsal is yet another area of potential for 3D printing, and Dr. Coles-Black 3D print copies of patients’ kidneys for pre-planning purposes before removing tumors from the organ. Chuen also 3Ds print plastic aorta models, so he’s able to practice procedures like inserting and expanding a stent ahead of time.

Chuen explained, “By using the model I can more easily assess that the stent is the right size and bends in exactly the right way when I deploy it.”

It costs AUD$2,000 per hour to run an operating theatre, according to Chuen – the cost of the plastic 3D printing material he uses for the aorta models is roughly AUD$15, or AUD$50 for flexible material, like thermoplastic polyurethane. The 3D segmentation software he uses is about AUD$20,000 a year, but the savings from inexpensive models to get patients out of surgery more quickly more than make up for this.

3D printed kidney with tumor in blue and blood vessels in pink and purple. [Image: Austin Health 3D Medical Printing Laboratory]

3D printed custom prosthetics is also a major area of 3D printing potential in the medical field. For example, surgeons used to cut a patient’s bone to fit the prosthetic for hip replacements, but the technology is used more and more to manufacture patient-specific prosthetics, which means that mass-supplied prosthetics could be on their way out.

Customized production of medical devices and medicine is now possible thanks to 3D printing, which opens up the potential for production to become localized. Instead of warehouses stuffed with spare prosthetics and packaged medications, distributed production – which Chuen says is the fifth area of medicine where 3D printing has the most potential – could replace the overstock with digital design files, which pharmacies and hospitals could download and print on demand.

However, he warns that distributed production comes with its own risks, including ensuring the quality of end products.

“That represents a huge shift and we have to work out how it could work,” Chuen said. “But if we get the regulation right then it will transform access to medical products.”

He believes that medical professionals need to remain “up to speed with the technology,” as their experience will be necessary in driving the successful adoption of 3D printing in the medical field. Discuss in the 3D Printing in Medicine forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: University of Melbourne]

 

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