Spare Printed Body Part, Anybody? How 3D Printing is Changing the Face of Healthcare
If someone had told you a few years ago that it would be possible to create a replacement body part simply by printing a copy, you probably wouldn’t have believed them. The mere concept of using printing technology to create something three-dimensional, let alone suitable for medical use, seems like something straight out of a science-fiction novel.
However, this is precisely what doctors are now doing across the world. 3D printing has become big news in the medical profession, and it’s believed that the market will be worth $4 billion by 2018.
How do 3D Printers Work?
All types of printing are essentially three-dimensional. If you examined a page of a book under a microscope, you would see that the ink is slightly raised. If you were to print on to the same page 1,000 times, the ink would start to noticeably protrude above the surface of the paper.
This is precisely how 3D printing operates; creating a physical form of any shape by building up layers. After designing a shape, the design is programmed into the 3D printing machine, which then essentially constructs the shape by adding numerous layers from the bottom to the top.
3D Printing to Replace Body Parts
3D printing has been embraced by medical experts for the potential it has to create a customised ‘fit’ for the individual patient. For example, prosthetic knee and hips joints in the past have generally been standardised sizes, meaning they’re not actually a ‘perfect’ fit for anyone. 3D printing enables complete personalisation, tailoring the prosthesis exactly to the individual.
There are other advantages to this. Customised implants tend to perform better, and in using them, surgeons are able to dramatically reduce surgery times. Given that some forms of surgery cost roughly £60 a minute, this cut in time results in serious savings for medical practices. In addition to this, 3D printed medical implants reduce the risk of using anaesthesia in longer operations.
Meryl Richards, in her early 70s, was one of the first people in the UK to experience this pioneering technique, when 3D printing was used to supply her with a new hip. Although previous hip surgery had left her almost immobile, the 3D printed hip replacement was a complete success. Shortly after her operation, she reported that: “Standing is still delicate, as my leg is a little painful, but I have no pain walking and no hip pain, which is incredible.”
Recent leaps forward with 3D printing body parts such as jawbones, and prosthetic hands and ears are paving the way for more delicate organic printing. Bio-engineers (or bio-designers as they are becoming known as) predict that the more complex organic printing of eyes and internal organs is just a few decades away.
The Drawbacks of 3D Printing Medical Treatments?
Of course, the principle drawback at present is that the technology is still a recent one. As a result, it hasn’t been tested over an extended period of time, and no one is quite sure yet how well these 3D printed replacement body parts will last.
Professor Tony Kochhar, a consultant surgeon at South London Healthcare NHS Trust, says: ‘3D Printing may well produce very precise implants and replacements. However, it is too early to say whether these will last longer, or whether stem cells will prevent the loosening that can happen with replacement surgery.” However, he acknowledges that the evidence so far is “promising”.