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3-D printing and how it's changing the medical field

  • Technological advances are being made every day. Some significant, some not so much. But no recent Technological advancement is as important as the invention of 3-D printing. This advancement is already being applied in several fields. Whether it be the automobile, aerospace, art and jewelry, construction, and various other fields, it is hard to not notice the revolution coming about thanks to 3-D printing. One major field that 3-D printing is playing an important role in is the medical field. The invention of 3-D printing has massively simplified many medical procedures and is quite literally saving lives. 

    To understand exactly why 3-D printing is such a huge deal, it is vital to understand what is 3-D printing. Essentially 3-D printing is the process of creating a three-dimensional object typically by laying down layers of material in succession through the use of a computer-generated design. 

    3-D printing is such a signi´Čücant invention because it tackles many issues that traditional methods poses Through the use of 3-D printing, production speed increases greatly, it is inexpensive, and it creates nearly perfect products with little to no waste. 

    3-D printing in medicine can be summarized into a total of four different and highly significant categories.  

    1.  Production of prosthetics 
    2.  Replication of tissues and organs 
    3.  Medical/Surgical devices  
    4.  Creation of anatomical models 

    Production of prosthetics: 

    Prosthetics are one of the major accomplishments that have been made in the industry. Even though the creation of prosthetics was well known for years, many people did not have access to it due to a few factors. Traditional prosthetics can cost thousands of dollars to make and will also take several days to produce. Not only that, traditional prosthetics usually last a few years, and when it comes to children, even less because of their rapidly growing bodies. 

    All of those issues are being solved by 3-D printed prosthetics. First of all,  a 3-D printed prosthetic can save thousands of dollars with its low cost. Secondly,  they are quick to make from anywhere between a few hours to a day. They are also highly customized because the prosthetics are designed to fit their owner. 

    Now all these benefits come with a few setbacks. The biggest issue concerning 3-D printed prosthetics is that they are not very durable. Because they have been made with layer upon layer of hot plastic, they can sometimes be broken easily when pushed or pulled the wrong way. Unlike traditionally made prosthetics, not every prosthetic is tested and approved. 3-D printed prosthetics are also not always made by trained professionals who have years of experience in the craft which can lead to minor problems with said prosthetics. 3-D printed prosthetics also have a limited number of materials they are made up of because not every material can be used in 3-D printing. That is another reason why 3-D printed prosthetics are usually not as durable as traditionally made ones. 

    But efforts are being made to counter some of these issues. A well-known company in the 3-D printing community known as E-NABLE, which is credited with creating the first 3-D printable prosthetic hand has worked very hard to create a more durable prosthetic using 3-D printing with a material known as FilaFlex. But the finished product was estimated to be around $2,000 which is significantly higher than most 3-D printed prosthetics even though is still not as expensive as traditionally made ones. Efforts like the ones being made by E-NABLE are contributing to solving the minor issues of prosthetics today and will surely be very helpful in the long run. 

    Replication of tissues and organs: 

    Among the many important contributions of 3-D printing, non is as life-critical as the replication of tissues and organs. 3-D printing tissues and organs also commonly known as bioprinting uses cells and other biocompatible materials in order to create structures that look similar to organs that enable living cells to multiply and is done so layer by layer. 

    Currently, bioprinting is only used for drug and pharmaceutical research. This is where researchers test out the different effects of various drugs on organs without having to rely on human or animal testing. Research for bioprinting human organs and tissues is still underway and is still undergoing rigorous testing. Conclusive results are to be expected in the next few years. 

    Globally, there is an organ shortage with there being nearly 200,000 organ transplants each year. But the demand for transplants far outweighs the supply. Bioprinting aims to reduce this gap. Bioprinting is much more accurate and faster than conventional means of receiving organs. Organs are highly designed for each of their recipients so this greatly reduces the likelihood of rejection. Because organs are created when a recipient needs one, there is little to no waiting time, effectively saving people from having to wait for the right donor to come by. Bioprinting also aims to be affordable to everybody. 

    There are a few cons that come with bioprinting with the biggest being its consumption of energy resulting in a large emission of unhealthy materials into the air and this is a big no-no, especially in our current times. Because bioprinting creates artificial organs, sometimes there is difficulty in maintaining the cell environment which will result in the death of many cells. Bioprinting has a few setbacks but its intended results are quite promising. 

    Medical/Surgical devices: 

    3-D printing also allows us to print medical devices. These devices include but are not limited to cranial and orthopedic implants, dental restorations, surgical instruments such as retractors, needle drivers, forceps, medical clamps, scalpel handles, and hemostats. 

    3-D printing allows these medical and surgical instruments to be highly customizable in order to cater to each patient's anatomy and surgeon's preferences. Changes can also be made very quickly. Many medical instruments are considered to be one size fits all but with 3-D printing, complex structures and shapes can be created to make sure they fit their respective user perfectly. 

    3-D printing of medical and surgical instruments is already being applied in places like the US, China, and Dubai. The results can clearly be seen especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 3-D printing was vital in supporting hospitals all around the globe mainly because of the sudden surge of a need for protective equipment for hospital personals. 

    Creation of anatomical models: 

    Another important application of 3-D printing in the medical field is the creation of anatomical models. Anatomical models play two major roles in medicine. First, for Surgical simulation and second for teaching. 

    Surgery is very risky so it is of the utmost importance that the surgeon or surgeons know exactly what they are getting themselves into. Anatomical models provide the surgeons with a sample of whatever organ they will be operating on so as to practice and map out all the step-by-step processes needed for the surgery. It provides the surgeons with an additive understanding of the patient, and this allows them to accurately navigate through surgery much easier so as to save more lives. 

    Anatomical models also help in teaching our upcoming doctors and surgeons. 3-D printing, unlike conventional methods, allows for an anatomically accurate model of very complex structures at record time and at a low cost. With anatomically accurate models, students can fully understand structures without having to rely on using a real-life model. 3-D printing can also help educate patients on their specific condition just from their MRI and CT scans. Anatomical models are already used out in the field every day with more accurate models being made as 3-D printing advances. 

    There is no question that the use of 3-D printing in the medical field is revolutionary with it actively saving lives every day and helping to contribute to the advancement of medicine at a faster pace than ever before. The only question is just how far can it truly go given enough resources, facilities, and time.

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