Medical fields are always looking for innovation. In other industries, new technologies can help companies earn more money, but in medicine, they can save lives. Many recent advancements have pushed medicine forward, but 3D printing is particularly promising.
3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, hasn’t been around for long but has already shown tremendous potential. This technology has enabled manufacturers and hobbyists alike to produce parts quickly and cheaply. As printing methods and materials advance, these benefits can apply to biomedical engineering as well.
Additive manufacturing has already seen implementation in biomedical engineering, and it has the potential to disrupt the entire field. Here’s how.
More Affordable Bionics and Prosthetics
High costs are one of the most significant issues across all medical fields. Cutting-edge treatments and technologies are typically expensive, which can prevent many patients from accessing the best health care. This issue is especially poignant in prosthetics and bionics, where only 15% of American amputees can cover the cost of a prosthesis.
Additive manufacturing is far faster and uses less material than traditional techniques. As a result, it can produce the same products at a fraction of the cost. A 3D-printed prosthetic hand could cost as little as $50, whereas a traditional one could run for thousands of dollars.
As technology advances, these machines can work faster and print with a wider variety of materials. Prosthesis companies could produce artificial limbs that fit a range of needs and desires at a drastically reduced cost. More amputees could access resources that would make their lives easier.
While most additive manufacturing applications deal with plastic filaments, that’s not all the technology can do. A subset called bioprinting prints with biomaterials like cells. This process can create artificial organs that look, feel and behave like real ones, which could revolutionize organ transplants.
Traditional artificial organs can be expensive, like traditionally manufactured prosthetics. Many patients rely on human transplants, but this involves long waitlists, and 17 people a day die while waiting. Since bioprinting can produce organs much faster, it can reduce these wait times, saving lives.
Another issue with traditional transplants is compatibility. While modern medicine has substantially improved success rates, 10%-15% of patients’ bodies will reject a transplant. Bioprinting can produce replacement organs from patients’ own cells, creating a perfect genetic match. Transplant rejections could become a thing of the past with this technology.
Accessible Hands-On Training
No matter how advanced medical technology is, its efficacy depends on medical professionals’ ability to use it. Providing robust training for medical staff will always be crucial, and 3D printing can help. Medical schools and hospitals can use cutting-edge printing techniques to fashion remarkably lifelike models of organs, tissues and bodies, providing better training resources.
Practicing or observing operations on human patients may be the most effective method, but this can be inaccessible or dangerous, especially for students with less experience. Bioprinting provides the next best thing. It could give med students lifelike artificial organs to practice on, offering them the benefits of live-patient training without the risks.
Since bioprinting works so quickly and affordably, these resources would be more accessible. Med schools could establish innovation districts where students get hands-on experience with their education, helping them learn and become hospital-ready earlier.
Improved Disease Research
Disease research can be a complicated field. There are so many variables involved between patients that it can be near-impossible to predict how a patient might respond to a condition. 3D printing can help in this area, too. Research centers can bioprint replica organs and disease cells like cancers, observing how they interact in a laboratory environment.
Testing experimental treatments on human patients can be dangerous. By bioprinting disease cells and host organs, researchers can see how potential treatments fare without putting a human patient at risk. By the time they move to human trials, they would have much greater confidence in the procedure’s efficacy.
A 2017 study found that doctors can identify potential side effects by testing a bioprinted replica of a patient’s organs. Since medical professionals now have the technology to print with patients’ cells, these replicas will respond similarly to the real patient. With this technique, doctors could test for and discover side effects before administering treatment, avoiding complications.
3D Printing Will Forever Change the Medical Field
3D printing has already disrupted the manufacturing industry, and it will likely do the same to biomedical engineering. This technology is still young and has yet to see widespread adoption, but its potential is too vast to ignore. As materials become more affordable and varied and bioprinting techniques advance, medical printing will take off.
When 3D printing sees higher adoption rates across hospitals, it will transform health care. From prosthetics to surgery to research, biomedical engineering will become more efficient, affordable and accessible. The medical field will save more lives and do so for less.
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, a magazine exploring how innovations change our world. She has over 3 years’ experience writing articles in the industrial and tech sectors.