Rapid Prototyping Possibilities: How 3D Printing Can Change The World Of Medicine

Huge advances in medicine are made possible by rapid prototyping. This type of 3D printing allows for more exact medical practice, better patient care, and exciting hope for the future of combating disease. 

It's Not General, It's Exact

Almost as soon as rapid prototyping technology came to light, medical professionals saw the potential for patient care. After all, prosthetic limbs and medical implants could be custom fit to the patient. A scan of the bone that needs to be replaced can be translated into an actual replacement polymer or ceramic bone that closely resembles the patient's original structure. Soon, there may be no need to mass produce hip replacements, because each patient could have a replacement that is a direct replication of their exact bone structure. Increased longevity and comfort would be the result.

The implications for this development are astronomical. In the future, patients may be able to have any bone in the body replaced by a rapid prototype replacement. For people who need intense reconstructive surgery, for instance, they can have their exact face shape again without having to worry about tissue transplants and steel plates to make up for broken or shattered bones. 

Practice Makes Perfect

Some surgeries, especially those that involve the face, hands, feet, eyes, brain, and skull, require intense precision and come with enormous risks to the patient. Rapid prototyping from companies like EIGERlab allows for the possibility that a surgeon could practice the surgery beforehand on a perfect replica of the patient who needs the surgery. No person has perfect anatomy, so performing one technique on a cadaver or another patient will not be the same. For extremely finicky or dangerous procedures, an exact model would be ideal, and now it is possible.

Rapid prototyping can even replicate the size and shape and location of a tumor. New technologies even print the model in full color, so it as realistic as possible. So, if the surgeon needed to remove a tumor from a bone, the amount of risk associated with this procedure with drastically decrease, as he would already know where to find it, how deep it goes, and what parts of the body may be affected during surgery. Best of all, the surgeon can practice removing the tumor on a perfect, non-living model.

Taking A Step Into The Future

So, moving from the world of rapid prototyping with plastic and different polymers, it's now time to speculate if this technology can replicate living tissue. After all, almost any shape can be created by rapid prototyping with inert materials, so why couldn't technology progress to producing viable organs and replacement body parts. Even though it sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, there may be a future where lack transplant donors won't prevent someone from getting a new liver or lung. 

Some scientists are currently working on way to create organs from artificial tissues using this technology. Even though the organs themselves are not living (yet), rapid prototyping allows for the subtle nuances, like tiny holes in membranes and long fibers in muscles, to be completely replicated and flexible. As technology progresses, scientists hope to be able to replicate human organs on a molecular level, allowing the body to seamlessly interact with the new organ that is as close to the real thing as possible. This progress would:

  • decrease the cost of transplant
  • eliminate the risk of rejection
  • give options to those who do not get transplants for religious reasons
  • reduce the amount of live organ donors needed, especially those who are still living for kidneys and livers

Another possibility is to use rapid prototyping to create molds to grow organs from stem cells. Stem cells have all the DNA of the body, and are not yet differentiated to a certain purpose, the way the nerve or muscle cells are. If a prototype can prove the structure, it may be possible to actually grow new tissue.