3D Printing for Better Health: Applications in Medicine

Posted on December 3, 2017 by kerri

It may seem a bit like sci-fi—or Frankenstein—that you could be able to print replacement body parts like hands or even organs using a 3D printer. However, ongoing work in this field is making this a reality in some areas of medicine, and closer and closer to a possibility in others. At Stanford MedicineX in 2014, I saw kids who benefitted from Enabling the Future’s 3D printed prosthetic hands, and at MedicineX 2017, I watched as my friend Joe, a paramedic, practiced intubation on a 3D printed model, commenting on the benefits of this tool for medical and other students, such as those training to be EMTs. 3D printing has always been about innovation—but now, we are seeing it applied in ways that truly could be the difference between life and death, like intubation training, or that can make an immeasurable difference in a person’s quality of life, as with prosthetic hands.

A 3D printed prosthetic hand with movable joints facilitated by screws.
Public domain photo courtesy of the US FDA

In 2013, a company was using 3D printing to fabricate living human tissue for neurosurgery. [1] Tissue printing is also being explored to create working organs for people who need them, and would mitigate risks of organ rejection as well as donor shortages. [1] Tissue printing is known as “3D bioprinting”, and uses “bioink” to layer by layer produce replicas of the necessary cell types and structures. If it’s blowing your mind or sounds too good to be true, consider this: a 2014 article states that already, researchers have used 3D bioprinting to create a knee meniscus (which often gets damaged and requires surgery, but currently cannot be replaced), spinal discs (also cartilaginous structures), “bone”, heart valves, and even an artificial ear! [1]

As mentioned, custom prosthetics devices can be made by 3D printing, and certain implants can also be made in this way. [2] Because so many items in medicine must be customized for the patient—think about hearing aids, dental implants, retainers, and limb and joint braces, just to name a few—they can be very expensive to fit. 3D printing allows for these custom made medical devices to be produced individually for the patient, and can be much, much cheaper than the technologies used at present.

We don’t yet 3D print medical bracelets, although designer jewelry is already being made with 3D printing technology! [1] However, just like intubation practice on a model could change the course of a patient’s treatment for the better, so can a medical ID bracelet or necklace change your future if you ever need it to speak for you! Like 3D printed items, our bracelets are engraved custom for your needs. Check out our selection here—and who knows, maybe one day, we’ll be using 3D printers to make medical IDs for you, too!

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