Six ways that 3D printing is revolutionising the biomedical industry

3D-Printing is an additive manufacturing process whereby objects are created by depositing successive layers. The main advantage associated with 3D printing is that it enables bespoke objects to be rapidly designed and manufactured out of variety of different materials. Accordingly, 3D printing is a technology highly relevant for the healthcare industry, where tools and medical devices function more efficiently when they are tailored to the individual being treated or the practitioner providing the treatment.

Below are six examples in which 3D printing is revolutionising the biomedical industry:

1. Surgical Instruments

3D printed surgical instruments, such as forceps, retractors, medical clamps, needle drivers, hemostats and scalpel handles, are already used in the healthcare sector due to fewer regulatory restrictions (compared to pharmaceuticals, implants, etc.) and fewer technical challenges associated with the fairly uncomplex geometries involved. 3D printing enables surgical instruments to be personalised to the size and shape of the surgeon’s hands and/or to the specific anatomy of the patient, which can dramatically improve treatment outcomes and reduce time in the operating theatre.

2. Anatomical Models

3D printed custom anatomical models are currently being used to benefit healthcare professionals. For example, 3D printing an anatomical model representative of a patient helps medical professionals with preoperative planning, intraoperative visualisation, and the sizing of medical equipment for both routine and complex procedures. Furthermore, models are utilised to train medical students by replicating the conditions they would likely encounter during surgery.

3D printed anatomical models are also being used as education tools for patients during the preoperative consultancy phase. Studies have shown that by providing an accurate, tactile representation of a patient’s anatomy, e.g. an organ, bone, muscle, etc., the rate of patient consent for the surgery increases compared to providing a digital representation, e.g. using computed tomography angiography (CTA). This increased rate of consent was attributed to the patients having a better understanding of the surgical procedure, which made them feel more involved in the decision-making process.

A key factor for the uptake of 3D printed anatomical models is the significant reduction in model costs compared to other manufacturing techniques. This means that practicing on 3D printed models is a viable option for more healthcare professionals around the world.

3. Prosthetics

3D printing has heavily contributed to the staggering improvements in prosthetics by enabling lightweight, custom-fit body parts to be manufactured quickly, precisely and at affordable prices. The most common 3D printed prosthetics are hands, arms, legs, and feet, however other body parts, such as ears and teeth have also been 3D printed.

An advantage of 3D printed prosthetic structures is that they are compatible with electromechanical components, thereby enabling bionic functionality. Furthermore, 3D printing technology provides extensive design freedom, meaning that prosthetics can be made to a wide variety of designs. This capability is particularly advantageous for those who are sensitive or embarrassed about their prosthetic. For instance, the ‘Hero arm’ project allows for the user to choose a 3D printed prosthetic that resemble the appearance of a superhero.

3D printing has also been used for corrective medical devices, e.g. for corrective insoles or orthoses. The technology is well suited making such devices due to the inherent need for tailored, highly precise manufacturing, as well as the ability to rapid iterate the design when the user’s stance or gait chances over time.

4. Drug Delivery

There are numerous examples of ground-breaking research using 3D printing technology in the field of medicine and medication. For example, scientists at Stanford University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have teamed up to develop a 3D-printed microneedle vaccine patch that has been shown to achieve an immune response 50 times greater than a vaccine delivered under the skin, and 10 times greater than a vaccine delivered into arm muscle. 3D printing technology was essential for the fabrication of the vaccine patch because it enabled the complex and delicate microneedle geometries to be formed.

Furthermore, researchers at Universiteit Leiden have 3D printed micro-scale objects (termed ‘microswimmers’), which can move in fluids (such as water or blood). Prototype microswimmer geometries include a helix, spiral and even a boat. The authors are hoping the technology will provide an effective means for drug delivery in the future.

A medical R&D team (VTT Finland) is developing a 3D printed smart wound dressing for healing a monitoring skin wounds. The dressing includes an in-house developed nanocellulose film and an electronic circuit board printed on the film. When the dressing is applied to the patient, printed electrodes on the circuit board enable wireless transmission of temperature data and tissue composition, which are helpful for monitoring and promoting healing strategies.

3D printing of drugs is tipped to revolutionise the pharmaceutical industry by offering the benefit of personalised pharmaceuticals with carefully tailored dosages, shapes, sizes and release characteristics. Compared to the ‘one size fits all’ approach, which has previously been adopted in the industry, 3D printing is envisaged to provide on-demand and on-site production of drugs, which is particularly beneficial for drugs that have poor stability and require cold chain storage requirements. 3D printing can therefore potentially reduce cost, waste and environment burden of producing medicine personalised to the patient.

5. Casts and Splints

There are several advantages associated with 3D printed casts compared to traditional plaster casts.

Firstly, 3D printed casts allow patients to shower or bathe relatively easily compared to plaster casts. For example, as 3D printed casts are generally constructed out of two, waterproof plastic shell halves that are connected by fasteners, they enable the user to either wash the injured body part whilst wearing the cast, or temporarily remove the cast prior to washing. Plaster casts on the other hand weaken when wet, which makes washing areas underneath the cast very difficult.

Secondly, 3D printed casts can be designed to form an irregular mesh shape, which is tailored to fit the user’s arm. Not only does this mean that the cast provides optimum support for the user, but it also allows the user’s skin to breath underneath the cast, thereby avoiding possible skin irritation or potential infection. Furthermore, the irregular mesh shape allows for items or ointments to be placed underneath the cast to assist with the healing process. For instance, the Osteoid cast includes a low-intensity pulsed ultrasound system, which is proposed to increase bone healing time by up to 38%.

Splints, particularly finger splints, appear to be one of the most common 3D printed medical devices manufactured at the consumer level. Numerous 3D printing online forums and communities provide splints for a variety of injuries, some of which also include instructions for tailoring the print to the user’s anatomy.

6. Bioprinting

Bioprinting involves 3D printing techniques that combine cells and growth factors to create biomedical parts that imitate natural tissue. In order to print using living cells, bioprinters often work with bioinks, which contain cells within a viscous material such as alginate and gelatine. Excitingly, bioprinting has already been shown to be capable of printing living tissue, such as a human bladder, bones and skin (including blood vessels), and so there is a real possibility that organ printing could be a viable option for addressing organ donor shortages in the future.

You can read more about the future for bioprinting organs, in our blog The future of organ transplantation: growing organs from scratch? For a deeper dive into the future of bioprinting see our blog article Need to know: are we set for a bioprinting boom?