• Tue. Sep 27th, 2022

3D printing is used for inventive medical treatments and devices

ByMadeleine J. Pierce

Jun 22, 2022

Dr. Jeff Hersh

Q: Is 3D printing used for medical treatments?

A: Most manufactured objects start more or less as block-like structures, and parts of them are then removed by cutting, drilling, etc. to create their detailed three-dimensional (3D) form, like a sculpture chiseled out of a block of marble. . Of course, more complex objects can be made by joining simpler objects together, whether by gluing, welding, using fasteners (like a screw) or by other means.

A 3D printer creates objects by depositing (“printing”) successive layers; it is sometimes called “additive manufacturing”. You can think of this as taking pieces of paper cut in specific patterns and then laying them on top of each other to create a complete three-dimensional object; however, current 3D printing technology is much more advanced than that. Thus, 3D printing makes it possible to digitally design a very specific three-dimensional object (shape, size, etc.) and then produce it.

Almost ten years ago, I wrote a column about the possible use of 3D printing in medicine. I noted “It allows a medical device to be designed specifically for a patient.” Examples include 3D printing dental crowns, bridges and implants, artificial limbs, splints, replacement bones, scaffolding to support a baby’s trachea (for a baby born with a weakened trachea, a condition called tracheobronchomalacia, causing insufficient resistance in its breathing tube) and others. At that point, I posited, “imagine using a patient’s own body cells themselves as the 3D printer’s ‘ink’ to print a new body organ replacement.”

So where are we now?

3D technology has definitely taken a big leap forward over the past decade. Recently, a company took cells from someone born with an incompletely or malformed smaller outer ear and used those cells to 3D print a new outer ear for them. The congenital condition, called microtia and affecting 1 in 2,000 to 10,000 babies, creates a cosmetic problem and sometimes compromises the patient’s hearing. Older techniques took cartilage from the baby’s ribs and attempted to shape a new ear, and while this is beneficial overall, aesthetic and functional results can be somewhat limited. In this first-of-its-kind new technique, cells in the body that create cartilage, called chondrocytes, were taken from the patient and then “expanded” to create cartilage which was then mixed with the “bio-ink” formula of the society. This mixture was then used to 3D print a new ear for the patient, using a mirror image of the patient’s other ear as a model. This new ear was then surgically placed under the patient’s skin to correct his malformed ear. The result was a matching ear made from the patient’s own living tissue, optimizing aesthetic and functional outcome.

Other active 3D printing research includes:

  • Creation of patient-specific replacement heart valves.
  • Using a patient’s own cells to create new blood vessels for use as vascular grafts (eg for use in bypass surgeries).
  • Other futuristic works using a patient’s own cells to print certain body organs such as a replacement liver, kidney and even heart. In the future, we hope this will solve the huge problem of limited organ availability for patients in need of organ transplant.

There is still a long way to go to realize the full potential of 3D printing, especially using a patient’s own cells, as a treatment modality. However, the progress that has been made over the past decade is encouraging and I have great hope for what future research will create!

Jeff Hersh, Ph.D., MD, can be reached at [email protected]