Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Printing for Medicine

Many people are familiar with the sci-fi version of medicine: somebody jumping into a machine that can fix everything - curing disease, replacing body parts, and healing severe wounds. It appears that modern medicine, by combining and optimizing existing technologies, is getting closer to making this fantasy a reality. Recently, 3D printing has come forth as a relatively easy and effective way to perform procedures that were once inefficient and impractical
A 3D printed heart.
With the plethora of uses for 3D printing, it is surprising that medicine has not be targeted until now. Medicine has many methods for 3D imaging, such as MRI or X-rays, and it is possible to construct models from these images. Yet it required true creative insight to realize that these models and images could physically be created through the power of 3D printing.
An MRI of a hand that could be converted into a 3D printed model.
The applications of this idea for the field of medicine are tremendous. Suddenly surgery gets significantly more precise with the aid of 3D printed custom models, guides, and tools designed specifically for the patient. This drastically reduces the human error involved in surgery and allows for a more personalized treatment; rather than using the same standardized tools and procedure for everybody.
3D printed skull used as a guide in a facial reconstructive surgery.
3D printing not only improves treatment, it also makes it more available to the average person. For instance, a person waiting for a particular implant might have to go a very long time without treatment since there is a low demand  for unique implants and their production is both long and costly. With 3D printing, implants can be made specific to a person at a significantly reduced rate, and all within several days of placing the order. With 3D printed implants so much more readily available than traditional implants, many patients stuck waiting or unable to afford treatment can now receive the care they deserve and go back to living normal lives.
3D printed vertebral implants. Specially made, and work like the real thing.
It becomes increasingly clear that the idea to effectively apply 3D printing to medicine is a creative masterstroke. By reducing costs, greatly increasing the production rate, and maintaining ideal precision, 3D printing opens treatment options that were previously impossible for a vast number of patients. Consider children in need of prosthetic arms or hands. Previously, such prostheses would cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, be difficult to produce, and most importantly, would be completely impractical since a kid would outgrow the prostheses in a couple months. Thus, kids would be forced to cope and struggle through childhood. With 3D printing, however, prosthetic arms only cost several hundred dollars, and can be made so quickly and efficiently (within 24 hours), that it is now affordable to switch prostheses every couple months; thereby allowing these kids to live much more normal lives.
A 3D printed hand. Kids can get these in various styles and colors as well.
Now, while applying 3D printing to medicine is definitely a great idea, it can be argued whether or not it was truly creative. Thomas Ward, in "What's New about Old Ideas", argues that people utilize their past knowledge and preconceived notions to come up with novel, creative ideas. Ward says that it is the unique combination of ideas that defines creativity; not how 'new' an idea might be. Thus, by using prior information on medical imaging, modeling, and 3D printing, the truly creative idea of printing for medicine was developed.


  1. It never ceases to amaze me at the ingenuity of engineers and scientists. The amount of work and thought they put into learning their crafts to do something as serious as replacing broken human body parts using something synthetic is inspiring. I also noticed that you mentioned the transition towards personalized medicine and reducing costs. I think these two trends oppose each other but those are two goals that are important to strive for simultaneously. Better care may require more advanced technologies which needs to be affordable for those who need them. Anyway, speaking of personalized medicine I read this article recently about this man who 3D printed his wife's tumor to help a neurosurgeon visualize the mass and formulate a specialized plan to surgically remove it.

  2. 3d printing being used for medicinal purposes is a pretty sweet future to look forward to. You mentioned that you were surprised that it took them this long to try this. On the contrary, I am kind of surprised at how fast it has come around. 3d printing in industry has been around for a long time, but 3d printing has gained a ton of traction and popularity in the past few years. I look forward to the results of experimentation with new materials and the realization of the potential of this tech


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