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Medical care might not be the most obvious place for 3D printing applications, but 3D-printed kidneys and 3D-printed prosthetic eyes say otherwise. 3D-printed plastics are being used for medical tools and devices, models for surgical training and even lightweight, cost-efficient implants and prosthetics.

In many ways, we’re in the middle of a medical revolution, largely made possible because of advancements in 3D printing technology. Here’s a look at a few ways that 3D printing is already affecting the healthcare industry. 

Production of Common Medical Devices
Plastic devices are not new to the medical field, but the widespread availability is. 3D printers are increasingly used to create a range of devices. One child patient, for example, was saved by a 3D-printed splint that attached to his trachea so that he could be taken off a ventilator. Since then, this technology has been explored as a means to create even more life-saving and life-improving devices for use both outside and inside the human body.

Printing of Tools Used in Medicine
One of the most obvious ways to use 3D printing in healthcare is tools. The industry standard for years has been stainless steel surgical tools, but more and more medical professionals are seeing the advantage of using plastic tools created with 3D printing.

The implications are especially promising for areas with limited medical treatment options. One of the biggest hurdles for improving medical care in low-income areas is access to surgical equipment. Currently, stainless steel is the most common option, but there are problems — it’s significantly more expensive to produce, and sterilization of steel tools for reuse can be difficult in developing countries.

According to 3DPrint.com, which tracks and reports developments in the field, a 3D printer was recently able to produce an Army-Navy surgical retractor (a common and versatile surgical tool) in about 90 minutes and at a material cost of less than 50 cents. On top of that, the tool was completely sterile and safe for use when it was completed.

The article estimates that the cost to produce that particular instrument is about one-tenth the cost of producing the same instrument with stainless steel. That means cost-efficient and safe medical tools could soon find their way to all corners of the world.

A Revolution in Surgery
One of the most stunning medical advancements resulting from 3D printing can be found in operating rooms. For starters, 3D printing is changing pre-surgical planning. Doctors can use images derived from CT scans and MRIs to recreate lifelike models of organs. They can make better observations and prepare for remarkably more effective procedures long before commencing surgery. It’s called “personalized surgery,” and it’s already saving lives. Surgeons in Japan have created 3D replicas of cancerous kidneys for use in pre-surgery preparation, and U.S. doctors have used 3D-printed ribcages to help prepare for the treatment of birth defects in newborn babies.

Human Organs
Then there are the organs themselves. While the methods and technology are still in the works and likely won’t be ready for use for a few years, researchers are beginning to use 3D printing for strips of organ tissue and have their sights set on more complicated vascular systems that make replacement organs viable.

In the meantime, patients already benefit from prosthetics made from 3D printing, from knees and hip joints to fingers and teeth. Similarly, plastic medical implants can be made more cost-efficient and more effective. Take pacemakers, for example. Scientists are eagerly embracing the possibilities of thinner and more easily placed pacemakers made from 3D-printed silicon.

With both implants and prosthetics, plastics are considered the safer option. All-metal devices have been observed to leave behind dangerous fragments. The result can mean bone fractures, infections, dislocations and damage to nerve and muscle tissue. Consequently, researchers are looking into ways that plastic implants made from 3D printing can better protect the patient.

Regulations
As quickly as this field is moving, one of the top questions posed is how 3D-printed tools and devices are regulated in healthcare. In the United States, medical devices are largely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as they pertain directly to public health and safety.

As 3D printing has picked up steam, the FDA is closely watching and beginning to take a more proactive role. A priority of the FDA is that 3D devices are thoroughly vetted before being used inside or outside of a patient’s body — a fair concern and one that manufacturers and medical professionals are eager to address as well.

The FDA will host a public workshop in October, during which medical device manufacturers, the public and the agency itself will discuss any possible issues related to 3D printing and public health. According to the FDA’s notice released in May, the goals of the workshop are as follows:

  • To better understand the technological challenges related to the technology itself
  • To create awareness among stakeholders and to identify best practices
  • To promote new innovations that are safe and reliable
  • To develop new educational materials, standards and guidelines

People interested in participating, viewing the workshop by webcast or submitting information can find additional information at this link.

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