Like most emerging technologies, 3D printing has been slow to filter into the public consciousness, though it's begun to become better known over the last year or so. But doctors are already well-acquainted with its benefits. In medical circles, it's been making waves for years now. In fact, it's actually been saving lives.
In a recent piece, New Yorker contributor Jerome Groopman tells the story of a medical team which, in February 2012, was confronted with the case of a three-month-old baby on a ventilator whose weak airway persistently collapsed. To save the baby, the team decided, the solution was 3D printing.
The team at the University of Michigan took a CT scan of the baby's chest, converted it into a highly detailed, three-dimensional virtual map of his abnormal airways, then designed and printed a biocompatible "splint" which would hold the baby's airway open.
The splint was expected to last for three years or so, until the boy's cells grew over, dissolving the splint harmlessly. Once the splint was placed, the doctors were able to disconnect the baby from the ventilator and send him home.A year or so later, when the case was written up for The New England Journal of Medicine, the boy was doing well.
Many other babies and children have been saved by related methods since.
While this may have been an unusual case in 2012, such procedures are becoming increasingly common among both doctors and medical researchers, Groopman says.
"Almost every day, I receive an email from my hospital's press office describing how yet another colleague is using a 3-D printer to create an intricately realistic surgical model -- of a particular patient's actual valve, or finger, or optic nerve -- to practice on before the actual operation," Groopman writes.
And doctors aren't just using 3D tools for practice. Increasingly, surgeons are implementing 3D printed stents, prosthetics, and replacement segments of human skull, Groopman notes.
Making products personal
One company seeing great success in the 3D market is 3D Systems, which according to Groopman, is one of the world's leading providers of 3D printers and services.
3D Systems, which previously contributed to the design of the popular clear Invisalign braces, got experience in customizing medical devices for patients when it printed the individualized "aligner" for the product.
Today, 3D Systems is working with traditional medical devices, offering more customized alternatives to uncomfortable metal versions.
For example, the company has completed early tests of a new spinal brace for young adults with scoliosis which replaces the traditional metal brace, made from precisely melted, finely ground nylon powder. The result is a brace which looks more like a formfitting lace tank top and, unlike the metal brace, is light, breathable and wearable, Groopman says.
Other new alternatives to supporting the human frame co-developed by 3D Systems include personally-tailored sleeves made of flexible nylon fiber which, when worn on the torso, thighs and shins -- and connected to motorized leg braces and hand controls by Ekso Bionics -- allowed wheelchair-bound Amanda Boxtel to walk slowly.
What's more, 3D printing has countless other applications for healthcare, including printing customized drugs on demand.
Doing so would make it easier to prescribe individualized medicine based on a patient's genetic profile, and what's more, would almost certainly produce cheaper drugs than those bought through normal channels.
Organ printing remains elusive
Still, researchers haven't captured the Holy Grail. While 3D printing has made great strides in medicine, it still hasn't accomplished what some see as the most important goal.
Doctors' and researchers' long-term dream is to engineer kidneys, livers and other organs and tissues, sparing patients the need to search for a donor when their organs fail.
To date, efforts to print organs have failed.
Researchers have gone so far as to print a protein matrix and living cell types in a pattern similar to what is found in the body, but these are still experimental models, not usable organs.
Most efforts to print organs fail because blood isn't reaching all of the cells; creating a "vasculature" that circulates blood properly is one of the most difficult tasks medical researchers face.
Regardless, researchers and biotech firms are keeping up the fight.
In fact, just last week, Organovo and Yale's schools of medicine and engineering announced that they were partnering to research printing transplantable tissue, GigaOm reports.
In coming years, 3D printing will probably resolve issues in printing tissue and organs, particularly now that some 3D printers can print ink made of cells. Though medical researchers haven't managed to grow full-fledged organs, they've been able to grow tracheal cells or cardiac cells or kidney cells on polymer scaffolds, often with 3D printers.
As miraculous as it may sound, printing functional organs is just a matter of time, Groopman writes:
"As scientists make more concerted efforts to grow organs in the lab, the question is no longer whether they will succeed but how."
Anne Zieger is a veteran journalist who’s been covering the U.S. healthcare scene for over 25 years. She provides “News with a Twist,” combining solid reporting with expert insights and analysis. Her opinions are her own. You can follow Anne on Twitter @annezieger.