How 3D printing is revolutionising medicine

At the moment, 3D printing is used for dental implants, prosthesis, hip implants, simple vessel repair and skin grafts

A 3D printed human hand. 3D printing is currently used in dental implants, prosthesis, hip implants, replacing a missing piece of skull bone, simple vessel and skin grafts.

Dubai: The next big thing in medicine is 3D printing, which is helping revolutionise the health sector and boost people’s health prospects.

For example, 3D printing will enable doctors in the next five years to print out replicas of organs such as the heart, kidneys, brain, thus cutting down on the waiting time for transplant patients.

3D printing can bio-print prescription medicine using the ingredients and modify them for the patient’s specific benefit and it can simulate operation procedures by printing anatomical models of the organ to be operated, among other things, said Dr Homero Rivas from Stanford School of Medicine.

While the health-care sector is excited by the potential of this technique — which is being used in prosthetics and simple tissue grafts — it will take time for it to work out the promised medical miracles that many of us have been told 3D printing can perform.

Dr Rivas, who was speaking at the 3D printing conference on the second day of the Arab Health Exhibition and Congress, explained to Gulf News the concept of this technique.

What is 3D printing?

Started in the mid-80s, three dimensional printing or Additive Manufacturing (AM), as it is commonly known, is the process of making a 3D object from a digital file. “This was used a lot in the industrial sector in the ’80s and came to the medical field in the early ’90s when ‘bio ink’ was made,” Dr Rivas said.

Bio ink is a gel made of live cells which is housed in a specialised printing cartridge. Another cartridge is filled with a liquid matrix material and when the two are fed into a specialised printing machine, the two contents meld with the help of various processes and the specialised printing machine is able to replicate those live cells, explained Dr Rivas.

At the moment, 3D printing is used in the field of medicine for dental implants, prosthesis, hip implants, replacing a missing piece of skull bone, simple vessel and skin grafts.

How is it done?

Dr Rivas explained: “Nowadays, advanced imaging systems can enable a person to take a detailed CAT scan of an organ. This scan is translated into a digital image by the 3D bio printer using bio ink which can create a mirror three-dimensional design of the organ. Right now this is being used to recreate a single vessel or simple tissue such as skin for skin graft. We cannot do this with a complex organ although this might become a reality in the next five or six years once acceptable resins and gels are found that can be absorbed by the body,” he said.

Currently, a 3D printer can replicate basic cells as used in skin or bone grafts as there are approved gels and resins that have molecular structures acceptable to the human body. “The challenge today is, we still do not have enough of those materials that can be combined to form complex organs,” said Dr Rivas.

He expressed hope, however, that very soon, 3D printed models would be used in reconstructive and plastic surgery, in creating bio breast, nose and ear implants. Dr Rivas also hopes that medical research would be able to combine stem cell knowledge with bio printing to take 3D printing to another level.

Role of 3D printing in medical education

At present, surgeons are able to create anatomical models to simulate an operation for practice before the actual surgery.

“The bio-print model of a tumour, for instance, can be given to a patient to make him understand the location and shape of a tumour in his brain and help him understand the shape and texture of the tumour and how it is affecting him. In medical colleges, cadavers can be replaced with 3D printed models where medical students can study anatomy without the fear of contracting any kind of infection.

Pharmacies can bio print medicines bringing down cost of manufacturing and distribution that will impact the price of the medicine for the common man. The potentials of 3D printing are limitless,” said Dr Rivas.


The ethical debate

Even when medical science makes it possible to create an organ at will, can 3D printing be used for the greater good of humanity within ethical parameters? “Yes, we can. Right now, in the US, a philanthropic person has made a 3D printed prosthetic arm available to anyone with a missing forearm for less than $100 (Dh367.31).

It is a miracle as people needing a prosthesis have to simply download the image and print this arm and they are actually able to use it. 3D printing, if used in the right spirit, can enhance medical science and patient care within ethical confines,” said Dr Rivas.