The diagnostic value is also moving along quickly
The history of dissection and surgical training isn’t one for the squeamish. And that’s not just on account of the most obvious squick aspects of it, but the fact that it has not always been easy (or even ethical by today’s standards) to find bodies to work on. People used to refuse to hand over cadavers to the labs, and animals are never the best subjects to work with.
3D printing is already advanced enough to be used in organ-on-a-chip technology, such as the Wyss Institute’s “heart-on-a-chip” that can be used to better model patient reactions to drugs or simulate illnesses and injury responses. As Geektime previously reported, this could one day replace animal testing in medical and commercial applications.
With these advances in the technology, having the actual, physical body to poke around in is sometimes less important for treatment research, but a lot of work still does require that hands-on aspect. Here is where 3D printing has increasingly come in to offer new options. Or rather, new takes on existing methods.
In Australia, the Queensland University of Technology and Metro North Health Service announced last week that they would be opening the Herston Biofabrication Institute in 2017 to research, “3D scanning, modeling and printing of bone, cartilage and other human tissue to repair tissue that is lost or damaged.” The center will allow for more R&D and partnerships among health and hardware experts. One particular focus, notes Alphr, will be how to ensure the 3D printed tissue can get sufficient blood flow to it to keep it alive and not be rejected by the body. This remains a major stumbling block to developing living implants, rather than prostheses, but recent work in the US at Wake Forest University has been able to print tissue that performs necessary nutrient diffusion tasks.
Not only does all this offer the option of better-built prosthetics, but it makes diagnosis and surgical experimentation easier since surgeons can print 3D models of a patient’s internal organs to model treatments around. Multiple hospitals and research centers now incorporate these tools into their work. For example, orthopedists use immaculately tailored models of the skeletal system, “as aids for resection [removal] and reconstruction,” and also “to develop cutting guides an implants” per a presentation at a recent Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) 2016 conference, where several companies showcased new 3D printing tools.
And at the event, the RSNA announced it would team up with the health informatics enterprise Vital Images and the 3D printing company Stratasys to, set up a Special Interest Group, “to provide a multidisciplinary forum for collaboration among radiologists, physicians, engineers, and other applied scientists” in the industry. The printed medical device market will is now worth $279.6 million worldwide, and is expected to be nearly 10 times that number by 2020.
The more complex devices, like 3D printed organ-on-a-chip hearts, show live tissue behaving and reacting in real-time. The next step is actual replacement tissue, which has already made progress for dermal, kidney, lung, and bone or muscle tissue. (Some whole organs in animals have been recreated, but not yet a complete human system.)
3D printing has other applications as well. Medical devices can be fabricated with the technology as well, something that would be useful in remote or under-resourced locations.