In recent years, the healthcare sector has seen considerable progress, and 3D printing is no exception. Indeed, the usefulness of this technology in this field is no longer to be proven. For example, the manufacture of prostheses and implants via 3D printing is now mastered and allows the creation of custom-made models adapted to patients. But this is not the only use given to this technology in this sector. Here is an overview of the most telling existing applications.
Prostheses are usually mass-produced. As a result, they can sometimes not be adapted to the patient's morphology, and be particularly uncomfortable. 3D printing of prostheses makes it possible to create custom fittings for each patient, which marks a considerable advance in the sector. Open Bionics, a British start-up, can, for example, make and print customized robotic hand prostheses in just two days and for less than the cost of traditional prostheses.
In the same logic, at the Morriston Hospital in Wales, 3D printed splints are being tested with the aim of replacing Velcro splints. The patient's limb is scanned in order to make a mold that will be 3D printed in plastic materials. The splint is then adapted to the patient's physiognomy, more convenient to remove and put on than the devices available today. The use of plaster as a printing material is currently being tested: the objective is to create a personalized, lighter plaster, which would avoid the absorption of water or perspiration, and allow the skin to breathe to avoid skin infections.
Some bone fractures do not allow for surgical interventions. To address the most significant fractures, a group of researchers atNorthwestern University in Chicago has been investigating the value of 3D printing for bone reconstruction. The result is a 3D-printed synthetic bone that can help bone regeneration by replacing the missing piece of bone while it rebuilds itself.
This technology has already been tested on animals and the results are promising: a monkey's skull could be repaired in four days. The first clinical trials will begin in 2021.
Moreover, this first achievement opens up new opportunities in the dental, orthopedic and plastic surgery fields.
Podiatry is probably one of the medical fields where the use of 3D is the most advanced. Indeed, at the present time, most podiatrists, including the smallest structures, are equipped with 3D scanners that allow them to take an impression of the foot. The file of an insole totally adapted to the patient is then created, this insole will then be manufactured thanks to a 3D printer. This is all the more important for diabetic patients: a tiny wound can lead, in the worst scenarios, to amputation. It is therefore strongly recommended that they protect their shoes with a thick insole adapted to the morphology of their feet.
The future: bioprinting
At present, the advances in the medical field associated with 3D printing are more and more important every day. But what can we expect in the future? One of the problems facing medicine is the shortage of organ donors. 3D printing is already being used to assist in delicate operations: for example, the technology has been used to reproduce organ models to prepare for each step of a particularly delicate kidney transplant.
In the long term, the goal is to be able to recreate organs via 3D printing. In this field, progress is being made step by step. For example, at Harvard, researchers have succeeded in 3D printing heart tissue on a chip. The American laboratory Organovo is currently conducting tests to graft bioprinted tissue onto a damaged liver, which would prolong the functioning of the patient's organ and allow more time to find a compatible graft.
The healthcare field is beginning to open up to new technologies and the opportunities they bring. It is clear that 3D printing is still in its infancy in this sector, but the evolutions it could allow in the more or less long term will be considerable and revolutionary.