Big bang, Niche or Hype?
Each week, we read or hear of new medical uses for 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing). Innovations such as customised implants and prosthetics, medical models and equipment, and synthetic skin are just a few of the “prints” that have begun to revolutionize health care. Advocates believe that 3D printing will be one of the catalysts in the transformation of healthcare whilst sceptics regard it as a fringe technology that will remain the domain of research for some time. So is it all hype?
3D printing can already be found in everyday usage in healthcare. Dentistry and orthodontics are two examples of healthcare being impacted by 3D printing. More than 19,000 metal copings (for the creation of crowns and bridges) are now produced on 3D printers every day. Some 17 million clear aligners are created on 3D printers each year. In addition to dentistry, 90% of all hearing aids now sold in the US include patient fitted shells that are produced by 3D printers.
Other reported examples of 3D printing in a medical context demonstrate usage beyond the research laboratory:
- A 5-day-old baby boy was rushed to the St. Petersburg State Paediatric University Hospital in Russia with a life-threatening congenital heart defect known as Taussig-Bing malformation. The rare and complex condition requires specialized patient information to understand and plan the surgery, however due to the complexity of this case, the standard CT scans were not detailed enough to allow the surgeons to confidently prepare and execute a plan. They turned to Swiss startup 3D Medical Printing AG, to create a patient-specific 3D printed heart model which served as a critical pre-operational guide in two separate surgeries.
- The US Food and Drug Administration approved an epilepsy medicine called Spritam that is made by 3D printers, making it the first 3D-printed product that the FDA has approved for use inside the human body. The 3D printing of pills into specific geometrical shapes and sizes–translating into solutions for more rapid or sustained release kinetics—will likely mean that pharmakinetics will become an important driver of medication production for the consumer
- A 54-year-old Spanish cancer patient has received a titanium ribcage and sternum created with a 3D printer. The cancer patient was diagnosed with chest wall sarcoma and had to have a part of his skeleton removed to prevent tumours from spreading.
The continuous drive to improve the standard of health care will create many opportunities for 3D printing. For example, the growing ageing population of most developed economies will mean growing issues such as broken bones or worn joints which are often difficult to address as each one of us has a different anatomy. However, a 3D printed product can be tailor made to fit any anatomy. Based on some of the examples listed above, we should expect, in the near future, biomedical manufacturers to produce constructs capable of replacing complex and delicate organs such as heart valves or blood vessels.
Similarly to many new technologies, 3D printing needs to overcome a number of challenges before it becomes an integral part of medicine.
- Materials currently used in biomedical 3D printing are polymers, metals and bio-ink and it is expected that the range materials used will expand. However, our understanding of how 3D printing affects the properties of the materials used is limited.
- The cost of the materials used in biomedical 3D printing remain significant. Industrial eD printers typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars with the high-end machines costing multi-millions. The materials used in 3D printing are hundred times more expensive than their equivalent in processes such as injection moulding.
- Uncertainty around quality and reliability of 3D printed products will require the need for further experience and the setting of standards to meet the expected high standards of safety in medicine
- Adoption by health care professionals and patients alike which will be achieved once the benefits outweigh the perceived risks
As 3D printing captures a growing share of the broader manufacturing landscape, biomedical manufacturing will experience the same transformation as opportunities for greater customisation (personalised medicine) and health outcomes will drive demand and a manufacturer’s ability to reduce costs associated with supply chains, shipping, etc. will encourage supply.
Sources: BCG, CSIRO, Forbes, HBR