Looking for a post-COVID health-tech idea? Find it in 3D printing (Exponential Tech – Part 3)
From printing food to organs, 3D printing is a fascinating exponential tech industry in the making. This week we shall delve into its application in healthcare.
In this article, you’ll understand where the opportunities are in this upcoming field.
• What is 3D printing?
• Bioprinting and its uses in regenerative medicine
• Other applications of 3D printing in healthcare
• Current challenges and future of this promising technology
To put it simply, 3D printing is a process of making 3D solid objects from a digital file. It’s an additive process, wherein an object is created by adding layer after layer of material. Until finally the desired object takes shape.
3D printing in healthcare: Four core areas
As per the report published by Allied Market Research, the global 3D printing healthcare market accounted for $972.6 million in 2018. It is expected to reach $3.69 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 18.2% from 2019 to 2026. Here are the four major areas.
1. Bioprinting tissues and organoids (grow from stem cells)
2. Manufacturing customized medical and dental devices
3. Manufacturing surgical tools
4. Producing patient-specific anatomical models
► 1. Bioprinting tissues and organs
Bioprinters are 3D printers with one key difference. Instead of using materials such as plastic or metal, these printers deposit layers of biomaterial. That means these printers use cells to build living tissues. That eventually become blood vessels, bones, heart, or skin.
In the early 2000s, researchers discovered that living cells could be sprayed through the nozzles of inkjet printers. That didn’t damage the cells. But the problem was cells need a nurturing environment to stay alive: food, water, and oxygen. Such an environment is made possible by a micro gel that has vitamins, proteins, and other nourishing compounds. Researchers plant the cells around 3-D printed scaffolds made of biodegradable polymers or collagen so they can grow into a fully functional tissue.
For example, this method could be used to “print” a bladder, a simple organ consisting of only two types of cells. Here are the steps:
a) Scan a patient’s organ to determine size and shape
b) Create a 3D model from the scans
c) Using degradable polymer, print scaffolds to help cells grow in 3D
d) Place the organ in the patient’s body
e) Watch the scaffold slowly disappear after surgery
Isn’t it fascinating? There’s more.
In a landmark achievement, Tel Aviv University has 3D printed a small heart using human tissue. While the organ itself is smaller than one would need in a transplant, it is a massive step forward for bioprinting. Here the bio-inks used were “personalized hydrogel”, extracted from the fatty tissues of the human test patients.
Bioprinted bones are made with a durable and regenerative biomaterial capable of fusing with a patient’s natural bones over time. Eventually being replaced by them.
Researchers in South Korea developed 3D printed artificial corneas. Meanwhile, an Australian bio fabrication center called BioFAB3D built a handheld cartilage printing device called the BioPen. The BioPen is filled with stem cells derived from a patient’s fat. That helps in creating and implanting custom scaffolds of living material into failing joints.
Wake Forest School of Medicine has designed a printer that can print skin cells directly on to a burn wound.
Bioprinting also has its uses in clinical trials. It can use 3D printed tissues and organs without conducting trials on animals. Loreal, the French cosmetics major, partnered with 3D bioprinting company Organovo to 3D print human skin. This helps test their products before they get to market.
As this amazing area evolves, organ donations will be a thing of the past. The space of regenerative medicine will bring hope to many people around the globe.
You could even be printing your own personalized medicines soon. The possibilities are truly exciting.
► 2. Manufacturing customized medical and dental devices
3D printing has made manufacturing of medical devices less complex, much faster, more cost-effective, more customized, and easier to sterilize.
Prosthetics – 3D printing has completely transformed the prosthetics industry. Now you have perfectly fitted devices that are more cost-effective as well as functional.
Surgical guides – Both dental and medical surgeries require precision. A 3D printed surgical guide can help a surgeon line up holes, incisions, and implants as per the patient’s anatomy. Now with 3D printing, these guides can be produced rapidly to specifications.
Implants – 3D printing produces fine mesh structures at no additional cost. The organic structure of the device reduces the risk of rejection after the surgery is complete. These customizable implants are usually manufactured with 3D metal printing. This makes them strong, sterile, and matched to the patient’s needs.This is a test done on a sample of blood. It looks for cancer cells from a tumor that are circulating in the blood or for proteins in the blood due to the response of the immune system to the cancer. This will help in detecting cancer at an early stage.
► 3. 3D printing surgical tools
Sterile surgical instruments, such as forceps, hemostats, scalpel handles, and clamps, can be produced using 3D printers.
Not only does 3D printing produce sterile tools, but some printers based on origami, allow for the printing of tools that are precise and small in size. These instruments can be used to operate on tiny areas without causing unnecessary extra damage to the patient.
► 4. Preparing patient-specific surgical models
Creating 3D anatomical models from CT scans or MRIs is becoming increasingly useful for both doctors and patients. While these models help doctors prepare for their complex surgeries, they serve to educate patients about procedures. This helps not just reduce patient anxiety and recovery times but improves pre-operative planning and operating room efficiency.
In the words of Dr. Alexis Dang, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and the San Francisco Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center:
“Every one of our full-time orthopedic surgeons and nearly all of our part-time surgeons have utilized 3D printed models for care of patients at the San Francisco VA. We’ve all seen that 3D printing improves performance on game day.”
These 3D printed models are also widely used for training. For example, 3D printed endoscopic biopsy simulators are practical and useful tools in endoscopic training.
Three challenges before 3D printing goes mainstream in healthcare
As you can imagine, a regulatory and legal framework is still in the works. The scope for 3D printing is vast – from drugs and biologics to implants and prosthetics.
Beyond regulatory challenges, there are several technical challenges to overcome. These include costs of equipment, biocompatible materials, and interoperability between software and hardware.
Finally, there’s the economic hurdle of getting paid from insurance companies. While an FDA-approved 3D-printed joint implant may be reimbursed, 3D models of a patient’s anatomy and professional fees often are not.
Crossing these hurdles paves the way for the future.
3D printing in healthcare: At the cusp of an exponential curve
Consider these areas where 3D printing can be a gamechanger.
◘ A typical kidney transplant can cost more than $300,000. 3D printing has the potential to reduce that number to less than $100,000.
◘ Almost 114,000 people in the U.S. are on the waiting list for a life-saving organ donation. 3D printed organs can eliminate these queues forever.
◘ There are nearly 2 million people in the United States with amputations. 3D printed prosthetics can get people back in motion faster than ever before.
◘ The average price of a set of surgical instruments today is more than $3,000. This cost can reduce dramatically with 3D printing.
◘ A multihospital organization can have more than 25,000 pieces of equipment. 3D printing has a big role to play here.
Emerging opportunities for business and impacting people’s lives are aplenty here. Add the power of customization and precision, you can see the power of this exponential technology.
If you are in healthcare and be a part of this transformation, the time to experiment is now.
Originally published on LinkedIn, by Suzette Sugathan, Director, NextServices
Image Credit: Unsplash.com, Rob Wingate