I’m fascinated with 3D printing, and have written a number of posts on the topic. There are numerous applications in medicine, and particularly in trauma care. We are currently able to print substitutes for bone, cartilage (trachea), bladder, skin, and more. To date, all of these use the same 2D technology found in ink-jet printers. But instead of 2D splashes of ink, three dimensional bits of plastic or metal are stacked on top of each other one layer at a time and fused by a laser.
UC Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have developed a new 3D printing technology that coalesces an entire object at once using 3D information projected by shining light fro a standard LED projector into a column containing a special resin. The device has been renamed the “replicator” since it functions like the device seen in various Star Trek series. Here’s a brief video:
Bottom line: This is new technology, so it’s still a bit glitchy. The surface definition is lower than conventional 3D printing, which will limit its usefulness in some medical applications. And currently, the size limit is only four inches. But it will allow printing over existing objects, which may give it some real advantages. I’m sure there’s more to come with this promising new technology.
3D printing for medical purposes (bioprinting) continues to evolve, and I’ve written a number of posts on this topic over the past 7 years. Skin bioprinting has been around for some time, but it keeps getting more and more sophisticated. Now, appropriate cell lines for the “ink” tanks can be grown in just a few days, and laid down in layers that are getting closer to real skin.
Take a look at this video to see the state of the art:
The next step: adding hair, being able to print large sheets, and ultimately printing directly onto the body!
3D printing is becoming a big deal when it comes to replacement parts for people. Substantial advances have been made over the past 5 years, and a new printer under development from a company called Aether looks more advanced than most others in the field.
Most printers have a relatively limited number of biomaterials (”inks”) that they can print at one time, and many of the actual materials are proprietary. They tend to be very expensive, sometimes $200,000 or more.
Aether has developed what I would call a great “pilot” printer to demonstrate that this can be done better and more cheaply. The printer in the 8 minute video is printing two pieces of bone connected with a tendon. In this case, the printer uses 6 “inks” including graphene for bones and stem cells to seed them as well as the tendon. The printer can actually print a mix of organic and organic “inks” with up to 10 syringes (”cartridges”). And in this case, it actually embeds two transistors and wires in the product. Printing bionic parts? And the final cost of this printer is projected to be under $10,000.
A number of other companies are out there competing in this market. They are providing tissue samples and skin for drug testing and research. So expect technology to advance and prices to fall as these printers become more sophisticated and more clinically useful.
I’ve written quite a lot about the promise of medical applications for 3-D printers. Here’s another one for use by trauma professionals.
Look at the good, old-fashioned plaster cast. It’s been around for decades, and serves its purpose well. It’s easy to apply, inexpensive, and reasonably durable.
Then, along came fiberglass. It’s lighter, more durable, and a bit more water-resistant. And not a whole lot more expensive.
But both of these items have drawbacks. They are heavy. It’s best not to get them wet. Their application is very operator dependent. And probably most importantly, they are opaque. This masks any wounds or skin conditions under it for an extended period of time.
Deniz Karasahin, a Turkish student, won a design award for the development of a 3-D printed cast. It used the appearance of cancellous bone as a model, and is aesthetically very cool. A body scanner is used to scan the affected extremity so that the cast can be customized to the patient. The actual cast is printed from plastic, and can be rendered in a variety of colors. It is hinged, and locks together with a simple pin mechanism.
Bottom line: This is an interesting development in 3-D printing. However, it is not for everybody. Cheap plaster and fiberglass casts are very suitable for many patients. But for some, having the ability to inspect the underlying skin or deal with wounds will make this item much more desirable. And keep in mind, this product was developed for aesthetics. The holes can be much larger and still maintain strength and rigidity. So the cast of the future could be mostly holes, making it very light and shower compatible. Many people might be willing to pay a little more for this convenience.
Note: Ignore the LIPUS ultrasound units that can be incorporated into the one in the article. This is still unproven technology and I don’t recommend it.
This is the third and final topic that I discussed at the 25th Penn Trauma Reunion last Friday. Printer technology has progressed from dot-matrix printers (pushing ink out of a cloth ribbon with little metal pins) to laser printers (fusing dye rolled onto the paper) to inkjet printers (blowing little dots of ink onto paper out of a cartridge).
The next logical step was to go beyond printing with small flat dots of ink and using small spheres of plastic. These tiny spheres can be layered on top of each other using a 3D printer using the the same inkjet type technology and then fused together using a laser. These printers are popular in manufacturing, where they can be used to quickly create prototypes or small parts. Orthopedic surgeons have been using them to print out 3D representations of complex fractures to plan reconstructive surgery (click here for details).
Now consider replacing the little plastic spheres with various cell types cultured from a patient. Load up the “ink” cartridges and start printing some tissue! Anthony Atala runs the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University and is a pioneer in using this technique. He is able to print 10×10 cm skin grafts on pigs with good results (read about it here). Atala demonstrated the concept of printing whole organs at the TED2011 conference last year. Watch the YouTube video of a kidney being printed here. At this stage of development, it is not a functioning organ, but it’s a great proof of concept.
I believe that this technology is extremely promising. Printing simple human tissues like skin will not be far off. Although it seems farfetched, the picture below shows what is in store in the future. Hopefully, the days of donated organ shortages is coming to an end.