Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, as it is more commonly known, is being used to produce everything from food to guns to jewelry and clothing. If that isn’t incredible enough, the medical community has been using 3D technology to manufacture human body parts, including skulls, spinal inserts, and other bones, as well as facial prostheses and breast implants for cancer patients. Human organs are even on the horizon, and that could mean the end of organ donor waiting lists. Welcome to the future of medicine.
The obvious advantage to using 3D technology to print human bone replacements is that the procedure itself allows for the bone’s internal structure to be mimicked in a way that makes the replacement part as resilient and light as the original. The bone can can also be printed to perfectly match the break. Additionally, since 3D body parts that are made from titanium or the patient’s own cell tissue will not cause adverse allergic reactions, they will not be rejected by the body. This technology is being used in hospitals and research centers around the world, from Italy to the Netherlands, and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland even has its own 3-D Medical Applications Center devoted to everything from orthopedics to dentistry and craniofacial reconstruction.
As recently as 2012, spinal implants were in the clinical trial stage at Peking University in Beijing where surgeons implanted 3D-printed titanium spinal implants into 50 patients. One year later, team leader, Dr. Liu Zhongjun, reported that all of their trial patients had recovered well with no “undesirable side effects or adverse reactions”, according to an article posted at www.engineering.com. Fast forward to August 2014 and Dr. Zhongjun and his team have successfully implanted the first 3D-printed spine vertebrae into a 12-yr old boy suffering from Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of rare bone cancer. Medical advancements have sure come a long way, but researchers aren’t finished yet.
In April 2013, Organovo, a company that designs “functional human tissue”, produced 3D human liver tissue that retained its function for more than five days. Just six months later, in October 2013, Organovo issued a press release indicating that they were able to extend that timeframe to 40 days. In a period of only six months, Organovo increased the functional longevity of their 3D-printed liver tissue by an astonishing 800%.
Researchers from Harvard University and Sydney, Australia have collaborated on a medical breakthrough that just may lead the way toward the printing of fully functional 3D organs. They have developed nutrient and oxygen-delivering capillaries using the 3D printing process. These tiny vessels allow 3D organs to excrete waste, which, along with the nutrients and oxygen, will allow the organ cells to grow and thrive. Researchers believe that full-sized, fully functioning human organs may be years away from being a reality, however, given the accelerated pace of the research done by Organovo, Harvard and Sydney, among others, the timetable may be overly cautious.
Organ donor lists may one day be a thing of the past, which is lifesaving news for the more than 100,000 people who are on the list at any given time in the United States alone. What researchers have been able to accomplish already, though, is astonishing. 3D printed body parts is a futuristic concept that may leave some people feeling a bit uneasy. However, for those whose health and lives have and will be positively impacted, the future of medicine couldn’t have come soon enough.