Innovations in 3D printing technology could make it possible to ‘manufacture’ living organs, skin, tissue and bone rather than relying on transplants and artificial materials. Scientists are already creating bio-compatible medical prosthetics as well as lightweight exoskeletons, 3d models that aid in education and research, and even cool customizable limbs. Here are 14 intriguing examples.
Amazing Face Prosthetic
3D printing gave a man ravaged by cancer his face back in the form of an incredibly life-like prosthetic. Eric Molger lost almost the entire left half of his face to a tennis-ball-sized tumor, but doctors used CT and facial scans of the right side of his face to create digital blueprints for the prosthetic. The implant specialist behind this revolutionary medical miracle hopes to develop techniques that would allow 3D printing of similar body parts in silicone.
3D Human Cartilage
Living cartilage cells can now be shaped into the exact components needed to recreate noses, ears and other body parts. When a child is born without an ear, doctors usually carve a replacement out of rib cartilage, but the results aren’t always convincing. The ear-shaped prosthetic is tucked into the skin of the head to make a solid-yet-flexible organ where there was none.
3D-Printed ‘Magic Arms’ for a Little Girl
3D printing has made it possible for doctors to give a little girl with a genetic condition that will eventually render her arms useless a measure of self-reliance. Ekso Bionics created a light exoskeleton tailored to two-year-old Emma’s body that gives her the use of her arms.
This incredible 3D-printed bionic ear was made using an off-the-shelf 3D printer, combining human cartilage with an antennae. And get this: it hears better than a real human ear. The fully-functioning organ represents yet another intriguing possibility for augmenting the bodies of the deaf or those born without ears.
The amazing thing about 3D printers is they can be used with a variety of media, from plastics for durable objects to bio-compatible materials that the body will accept. The future of bio-compatible parts may be as simple as a doctor scanning your body and printing the part you need for surgical implantation within days.
Bone Models for Surgery Prep
“One day in surgery an opportunity arose, a patient needed a 3D model created of their fractured forearm to plan their surgery to realign it,” writes Mark Frame, an orthopedic surgical trainee. “This had already been done via a university department and the model produced was out of proportion and only a truncated portion due to cost issues. Even with this it was still north of $1200 for the small model. I then realized I could do better and for less and challenged my self to produce a model. I trawled the blogs and the shapeways forums, gleaning help and advise from many members of the shapeways community. Having chosen my tools I got to work.”
DNA Origami Models
3D printing can enable medical professionals to get a better understanding of things as complex as DNA by giving them physical models to work with. Bjorn Hogberg, PhD of Harvard Medical School created this ‘DNA origami’ model that could help make drug delivery systems and molecular machines. Read more about this fascinating possibility at Shapeways.
Printed Human Tissues for Drug Testing
3D printing could someday be used to produce replacement tissue, vessels and organs, says Micahel Renard, executive vice president of bioprinting company Organovo. The technology also has potential for experimental drug testing on human tissue without actually experimenting on living people. “Being able to provide functional living human tissues will provide drug-discovery scientists with entirely new means to test drug candidates and study their effects in an environment most like that of the drug administered in the human body. This can both improve the safety of potential drugs and help determine whether a drug should be taken forward in very expensive human clinical trials. The end result can be a significant improvement in the efficiency of safety and efficacy testing.”
Here’s another ear 3D-printed using living human cells. The researchers make a digital 3D representation of a patient’s ear, use a 3D printer to produce a solid plastic mold in that shape, and fill it with a high-density collagen gel with the consistency of Jello. Once seeded with living cartilage cells, it’s ready to be implanted.
Sheets of Skin for Grafting
Burn victims and other patients in need of skin grafts have to endure painful procedures wherein tissue is taken from other parts of their bodies, often the thighs, and moved to the face, arms or hands. 3D printing could someday make that a thing of the past with ‘bioprinters’ that create sheets of artificial skin.
Bladders and Other Organs
Believe it or not, fully-functioning organs are possible, as well. Researchers have already successfully created a bladder. The organ is made by scanning the patient’s existing organ, printing a new one with bio-compatible materials, and seeding the result with tissues from the patient. This raises the possibility of ‘growing’ organs rather than relying on scarce transplants to save lives.
How cool would it be to custom-design your own limbs in the colors and shapes you like? A San Francisco-based company called Bespoke Innovations uses 3D printing and modeling technology to produce prosthetic limbs that are a lot cooler than those typically available.
For those parents who think a replica of their child in the womb is a really cool thing to display in their houses (different strokes), a Japanese company called Fasotec will convert an MRI scan of the fetus into a 3D-printed sculpture for the low, low price of $1,250.