Amazing Medical Uses of 3D Printing

Using 3-D printers to squirt living tissues, organs, and lifesaving medical implants might sound like science fiction, but it’s already a reality in research centers and hospitals.

In an incredible medical first, doctors used a 3-D laser printer to create an airway device that saved a baby boy’s life. Kaiba Gionfriddo was born with a birth defect called tracheobronchomalacia, which caused his airway to collapse frequently, halting both his breathing and his heart, a team of specialists from University of Michigan report in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

The Youngstown, Ohio baby turned blue and almost died when he was 6 weeks old. His dad revived him with CPR, according to AP News. At age 2 months, little Kaiba was so ill that he was put on a ventilator. But even that treatment didn’t stop his recurring episodes of cardiopulmonary arrest.

“Quite a few [doctors] said he had a good chance of not leaving the hospital alive,” his mom, April, told AP News. “We pretty much prayed every night, hoping that he would pull through.”

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The Ultimate in Personalized Medicine

Kaiba was rushed to University of Michigan Medical Center in critical condition. Specialists used a 3-D printer to create a custom-designed airway splint. The tiny polyester tube is flexible and expandable, similar to a vacuum-cleaner hose, the team reports in NEJM.

The doctors obtained emergency permission from the FDA to implant the device in Kaiba. Afterwards, his lungs were immediately able to inflate and deflate normally. Now 18 months old, he hasn’t suffered a single breathing crisis since the treatment.

The tube is made of biodegradable material that will dissolve after he grows normal, healthy tracheal tissue. “It’s the ultimate example of customized medicine and it can be done much more rapidly and precisely than any way we’ve had to do things before,” Dr. Glenn Green, coauthor of the NEJM report, told The Michigan Daily.

Three-D printing is “the wave of the future, with amazing potential to revolutionize healthcare,” adds Karl West, Director, Medical Device Solutions, at the Cleveland Clinic. Here’s a look at some of the coolest ways it’s being used.

Using “bio-ink” to create living tissue. Scottish scientists have invented a cell printer that squirts out living embryonic stem cells, a technology that could be a boon to regenerative medicine by allowing doctors to create tissues to test new drugs or even grow organs. Stem cells have the unique ability to develop into any type of cells, from skin to muscle, bone or organs, Fox News reports.

 3-D “magic arms” allow a disabled child to hug and play. Four-year-old Emma was unable to move her arms freely due to a muscular disorder, until researchers built “magic arms” for her, with the aid of a 3-D printer.  More than a dozen other disabled children have also benefitted from this technology, NBC News reports. Cleveland Clinic is looking into using 3-D laser melt printers to create custom, patient-specific orthopedic devices, says Kent. “Currently, if you get a hip replacement surgery, the device is adjusted to fit you by removing material, but 3-D printing would work in reverse, by building an implant that precisely matched your anatomy.”

Printing a human ear. Researchers from Cornell used a 3-D printer to craft a human ear that looks and feels like a real one. The ear wasn’t printed with “bio-ink.” Instead, the ears of normal children were scanned and digitized, according to a study published in PLOS ONE. The images were used to create a mold that was filled with animal collagen, followed by cartilage. The collagen acted as a framework for the cartilage cells to grow. After three months, the flexible ears steadily grew cartilage to replace the collagen. “"I believe this will be the novel solution reconstructive surgeons have long wished for to help children born with absence or severe deformity of the ear," says the study’s co-lead author, Dr. Jason Spector, M.D., director of the Laboratory for Bioregenerative Medicine and Surgery (LBMS) and associate professor in the Department of Surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College and an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Cornell University in a statement. "A bioengineered ear replacement like this would also help individuals who have lost part or all of their external ear in an accident or from cancer."

Patching a broken heart. An international team of scientists are developing a heart patch using 3-D laser printing and human stem cells, collected from the blood vessel lining inside an umbilical cord. The heart patch was tested on rats that had suffered heart attacks, with significant improvement in heart function after the treatment. The researchers believe that such patches, which are like living bandages, could ultimately improve healing in human heart-attack survivors.  The study was published in the journal Biomaterials. Three-D printing can also help doctors customize blood vessel devices, such as stents (used to prop clogged arteries open), reports West.

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Safer surgery. At Cleveland Clinic, surgeons performing complex liver or kidney transplant operations don’t look at scans of the patients’ blood vessels to guide the procedure. Instead, the hospital actually constructs a 3-D model of the patient’s organ, says West. “In the operating room, the surgeons can see the inner vasculature without the patient being exposed to the ionizing radiation of a CT scanner. Basically, 3-D printers are giving doctors a new tool to see inside the body, both during surgery and while they’re planning the procedure beforehand.”

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