This past month, 3D printing has been in the news more and more it seems.
Whether this is because of NASA’s new initiative to have a 3D printer aboard the International Space Station (which has led to a 3D printed wrench design ‘emailed’ into space) or due to this viral video by 3D Systems about a two legged dog’s 3D printed prosthetics, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be in the dark about this rapidly evolving technology.
Yet, perhaps the biggest news this month has concerned the use of 3D printing within the medical industry. To be honest, this news hasn’t just been coming out this past month, either.
Last month, (the December 2014 Issue of Replicator World), we sat down with medical design firm Worrell’s Business Development Manager, Derek Mathers, in order to discuss his company’s new collaboration with Stratasys.
In that interview, Mr. Mathers discussed the benefits of using 3D printed injection molding (which is a specific form of 3D printing) within the medical industry: “traditional tooling is expensive and a hassle to deal with, and the first run of parts is usually never correct. Our clients and designers have been frustrated by tooling their entire careers since expensive metal molds are usually rendered worthless with a small design change. 3D molds take just hours to print and can be quickly switched out of an aluminum mudset, making design iterations a delight instead of a budget breaking mistake.”
We asked Mr. Mathers what sorts of medical devices Worrell will print using injection-molded prototypes. He replied that “the bigger question here is what materials we can manufacture – and the answer is most thermoplastics, TPEs, and some thermosets. This enables us to make small batches of usually around 100 small to medium sized parts in PC, ABS, PP, Peek, and many other materials.”
He sees the medical industry being revolutionized by 3D printing: “It will start with making our current technologies better, such as 3D IM to injection molding. 3D printing will help introduce technology faster, allowing companies to rapidly introduce new medical devices to the marketplace and do so with higher quality products.”
“Next, it will be used in hospitals to support surgeons and doctors to improve their ability to care for a patient – whether it’s companies like Materialise creating titanium surgical guides to make complex surgeries simple, or companies like Oxford Performance Materials making titanium bone replacements.”
“Finally, in the future it will be used to rebuild human [bodies] before medical devices are ever needed, by creating and rebuilding organs lay-by-layer using your specific stem cells.”
Mr. Mathers concluded our conversation by explaining how “this [specific 3D printed injection molding] process is a monumental step for what has been a fairly unchanged product development process for a long time. By integrating 3D printing with injection molding, we are breathing fresh, exciting life into an industry that hasn’t changed much since its inception.”
Mr. Mathers and his team at Worrell are not the only ones changing the way technology is used within the medical industry, however.
Indeed, in an extensive article for the New Yorker this past month, Jerome Groopman, a biology writer for that esteemed magazine, dove into the medical potential of 3D printing.
Groopman begins by discussing how 3D printers are now being used to create tissue for bodies that need it. He then goes on to expound upon a collaboration between 3D Systems and Invisalign, “an alternative to the metal braces used in orthodontics.”
The most interesting portion of the article, however, is Groopman’s discussion with Jennifer Lewis, a materials scientist at Harvard, and one of the pioneers into the new technology of bioprinting.
Lewis, along with graduate student David Kolesky, published a paper in Advanced Materials “describing a potential way to keep large masses of cells thriving” using a customized 3D printer. Groopman was even able to see a group of these 3D printer-created tissues and cells up close and in person.
On top of these fascinating discoveries, another announcement within the medical industry involved the extensive help of 3D printing recently. As was first reported by Medical Xpress, “physicians at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston” announced the use of 3D printed models during “the country’s first full-face transplantation in 2011” at the most recent annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).
“Researchers are using computed tomography (CT scans) and 3D printing technology to recreate life-size models of patients’ heads to assist in” face transplant surgeries.
Frank J. Rybicki, M.D., radiologist and director of the [Women’s] Hospital’s Applied Imaging Science Laboratory, and one of the main researchers during this project, elaborated upon the merits of using 3D printing: ““this is a complex surgery and its success is dependent on surgical planning. Our study demonstrated that if you use this model and hold [a model of] the skull in your hand, there is no better way to plan the procedure.”
Each of the transplant patience underwent CT scans with “3D visualization. To build each life-size skull model, the CT images of the transplant recipient’s head were segmented and processed using customized software, creating specialized data files that were input into a 3D printer.”
Dr. Rybicki further demonstrated that “if there are absent or missing bony structures needed for reconstruction, we can make modifications based on the 3D printed model prior to the actual transplantation, instead of taking the time to do alterations during ischemia time. The 3D model is important for making the transplant cosmetically appealing.”
3D printing is now a regular fixture during surgical planning for face transplantation procedures at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Dr. Rybicki concludes: “you can spin, rotate, and scroll though as many CT images as you want but there’s no substitute for having the real thing in your hand. The ability to work with the model gives you an unprecedented level of reassurance and confidence in the procedure.”
Yet another recent article discussing the merits of the use of 3D printing for medical devices was published by the Collegian. It discussed Colorado graduate student and fifth year Ph.D candidate Megan Aanstoos’ collaboration with Idea-2-Product Lab 3D Printing Lab in order to develop a new type of hearing aid cover. 3D printing allowed Aanstoos and her team to create and test prototypes in order to build a product closer to what they had envisioned from the beginning.
All of these medical innovations through the creative use of 3D printing was evidently not enough for the world this month, however. Scientific American reports that scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research in London have “developed a new use for 3D printing, putting it to work to create personalized replica models of cancerous parts of the body to allow doctors to target tumors more precisely.”
Glenn Flux, head of radioisotope physics at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, and his team, used a Stratasys 3D printer in order to create “accurate modeling, [which] will allow doctors in the future to fine-tune dosing, resulting in the likely routine use of such 3D printouts.”
Flux and his team “published a technical paper on their process in the journal Medical Physics [this past] July, showing the models can accurately replicate the shape of a patient’s tumor and the surrounding organs, and are now looking to confirm the benefits in larger studies.”
Flux adds, “if we personalize treatment according to the radiation dose delivered to the tumor, then we should have a better outcome. I think it will have a huge impact.”
This all just goes to show you how 3D printing has the capacity to revolutionize any industry, even (and perhaps especially) those that have not changed for many decades, as Mr. Mathers explained to us.
Which brings us back to that recent viral video of Derby the dog and his new set of prosthetics. Even five years ago, nobody could have dreamed that animals or humans would be able to 3D print customized medical devices that could benefit life so adeptly.
But as 3D printing is doing in so many industries today, this technology is proving the skeptics wrong.
Image Courtesy of 3dprinting.com
Quotes Courtesy of Worrell, The New Yorker, Medical Xpress, The Collegian, and Scientific American