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Medical 3D Printing Breakthroughs in 2017

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Every year, great strides are made in medical 3D printing. Stories that used to be headline news around the world are now becoming more commonplace as personalized healthcare is here to stay: surgeries performed with the aid of 3D printed organ models, people regaining their mobility with help from 3D printed prosthetics. But each year brings new innovations, as well, and there was a lot in 2017 that wowed everyone. Here’s a look at some of the brand new 3D printed medical developments that arose over the past year.

3D Printed Vaccines

[Image: MIT]

In developing countries, access to vaccines is unreliable, and trying to put a child on the same kind of vaccine schedule that a child in the United States is on can be unrealistic. It would be ideal, thought engineers at MIT, if children could be given all of their vaccines in one shot that would release the vaccines at spaced-out, predetermined times. Using 3D printing, those engineers created a microparticle that resembled a cup and could be filled with specific doses of medicine or vaccine. The cups would then biodegrade at predetermined rates, releasing their contents into the bloodstream at different times according to a schedule.

“We are very excited about this work because, for the first time, we can create a library of tiny, encased vaccine particles, each programmed to release at a precise, predictable time, so that people could potentially receive a single injection that, in effect, would have multiple boosters already built into it,” said Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Professor at MIT. “This could have a significant impact on patients everywhere, especially in the developing world where patient compliance is particularly poor.”

3D Printed Spermbots

It may sound weird, but researchers are looking at a new way of fighting cervical cancer: spermbots. The 3D printed biohybrid microbots are being used to deliver drugs to cancer cells, utilizing sperm’s natural ability to swim to reach their target. The technology isn’t yet ready for practical applications, but it looks promising in terms of targeted therapy.

“We decided to work with sperm cells because they have the ability to naturally swim in the female reproductive tract,” said Mariana Medina-Sánchez, leader of the Micro and Nanobiomedical Engineering Group at the Institute for Integrative Nanosciences (IIN) at IFW Dresden. “The sperm has the natural ability to fuse with the [egg cell], and this is very beneficial. It can do the same thing with the cancer cells and release the drug inside the cancer cells, making the treatment much more effective.”

3D Printed Silicone Heart 

Researchers at ETH Zurich 3D printed the first-ever entirely soft artificial heart in July, creating it out of silicone. Unlike other 3D printed heart models that have been made, this one actually feels and beats like a real heart, thanks to pressurized air that inflates and deflates it. The heart was not designed for implantation, but it was created to give researchers a better idea about the direction that could be taken in the development of implantable artificial hearts.

[Image: Zurich Heart]

3D Printed Lenses to Prevent Photosensitive Epileptic Seizures

Logan Williams [Image: University of Canterbury]

Some people with epilepsy can have seizures triggered by flashing lights, prompting warning signs on the doors of clubs and theatres. But Logan Williams, a 22-year-old student at the University of Canterbury, believes he can prevent these types of seizures with a 3D printed polarized contact lens that he calls Polar Optics.

“I was inspired to develop Polar Optics by one of my close friends who suffers from photosensitive epilepsy,” said Williams. “The only treatment that gives sufferers some form of protection against the threat of a fit is medication, which can restrict diet, lifestyle, and have other adverse potential side effects. Polar Optics mitigates environmental threats, enabling sufferers to go about their daily lives without fear of a seizure. It has the potential to really make a difference to people all over the world with photosensitive epilepsy, and will also help anyone who suffers from headaches and migraines from bright light.”

Tuberculosis Diagnostic Device 

The Global Good Fund turned to Carbon’s 3D printing technology to prototype an affordable and easy-to-use diagnostic device for tuberculosis, taking another step towards battling a disease that 10 million people around the world still contract every year. Early diagnosis is key for successfully treating the disease, and Global Good is working to create a device that can diagnose it quickly in countries that don’t have strong health care systems. 3D printing helped to speed up the development of the device, and Global Good was able to field test more than 1,000 of them.

[Image: Carbon]

Those are just a few highlights picked out from what was an incredibly productive year in the medical 3D printing world. It’s impossible to count how many people’s lives were saved in 2017 by 3D printing, and how many more lives will be saved in the future by developments currently underway. If you want a reason to be hopeful in the new year, browse through some of our stories on medical 3D printing to see some more of the many ways that lives are being improved and saved every day with help from 3D printing technology.

What are your favorite health-related stories from the year? Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at or share your thoughts below. 


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