Where Does 3D Printing Stand in the Future of Medicine?

Imagine a world where terminal patients don’t have to wait months, or even years, for a life saving transplant, a place where prosthetic limbs are a thing of the past, a world where live organs are as common as your average DME.

With the advent of bioprinting, this Shangri-La of medical care may not be too far off.  Biomedical companies are predicting that within the next generation, scientists will be able to use 3D printers to mass-produce working human limbs, replacement joint cartilage and even transplant-ready organs.

What is Bioprinting?
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital template. A 3D object is created by laying down successive layers of materials such as glass, metal, ceramics or plastic into a desired shape. Accordingly, the automotive and aviation industries have been taking advantage of 3D printing to manufacture machine parts for years.

3D printers called bioprinters, though, use “bio-ink,” made of hundreds of thousands of living cells, to create human tissue.  Essentially, bio-ink is stacked, layer-by-layer, into a desired shape and naturally fused to form human tissue.

Eventually, medical researchers hope to use printed tissue to make organs for organ replacement. But obstacles to full-organ printing are not just technological. The first organ-printing machine will probably cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce.

“Research and development is very expensive, in part because of the time it takes to get a new technology to market,” said Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “But there is no question that someday, perhaps in the span of a generation, you can have a heart made out of your own cell tissue. Isn’t that amazing?”

The theorized process of bioprinting organs would start with taking a culture of replacement tissue directly from the patient. The culture would then be printed into the shape of a desired organ using a bioprinter.

Because the parts are made from the organ recipient’s own genetic matter and precisely match the tissue or organ they’re replacing, there is less of a chance of the immune system rejecting the foreign tissue.

So while bioprinting technology is still in its youth, great strides have been made in terms of its applications.

Where It Stands Right Now
Three uses of the technology, already gaining traction as viable medical businesses, include the remote production of dental crowns, bridges and implants; the manufacturing of custom hearing aids; and the mass-production of prosthetics.

In 2003, Wake Forest succeeded in printing the first fully functional mini-kidney, which was able to filter blood and produce urine. Since then, scientists have been working to develop more sophisticated organs like hearts, livers and uteruses.

Organovo, with the help of Australian company Invetech, was the first company to launch a commercial 3D bioprinter. The company originally intended to sell the printer for commercial use, but changed their business model to manufacturing tissue for pharmaceutical companies after realizing the market potential in producing live human tissue.

All of this hard work from scientists around the globe has paid off. Last year, doctors in the Netherlands engineered a 3D printed prosthetic lower jaw, which was implanted into an 83-year-old woman who suffered from a chronic bone infection. The printer produced a human jaw from 33 layers of titanium powder that were heated, bonded together and then coated with artificial bone.

The Future Is Near
According to recent figures, the current average costs of an organ transplant in the U.S. can escalate to well over $1 million.  And according to United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), more than 113,000 patients in the U.S. are currently waiting for an organ transplant.

“Only 1 to 2 percent of the population dies in a way that makes them potential organ donors,” says Anne Paschke, a UNOS spokesperson. “Any technology, including 3D bioprinting, that ends up reducing the need for donated organs will simply save a lot more lives.”

Dr. Atala says the application of 3D printing isn’t just a breakthrough for patients, however, but for physicians as well. The process can improve medical outcomes by helping surgeons plan their surgeries more effectively.

“The typical treatment in the past for someone whose pelvis was shattered in an automobile accident was to X-ray or CAT-scan the broken bones, plan the surgery, and then conduct it. It may be more effective to scan the victim’s pelvis and three-dimensionally reconstruct the broken bones,” Atala says. “Surgeons can then take the printed pieces in hand, design needed replacement pieces, and have them ready at the time of surgery.”

So 3D bioprinting is positioning itself not only to improve the quality of patient care but also facilitate pre-surgery calculations for physicians as well. It looks like the potential medical uses for 3D printing are endless.

How could 3D printing improve your patient care?