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Will 3-D Printing Revolutionize Medicine?

What Is 3-D Printing? continued...

Although 3-D printers have been around since the 1980s, medical uses have skyrocketed in the past few years, experts say.

They can produce more complex shapes than traditional manufacturing. This allows the products to be highly personalized: a tooth that looks just like the one you lost, or an exact replica of a hip joint.

The process can save time and practically bring production of medical devices to the patient’s bedside. Although no one has exact numbers, University of Michigan biomedical engineering professor Scott Hollister believes about several dozen medical centers in the country now use 3-D printers in some form.  

Teeth, Limbs, and Hearing Aids

3-D printing is already widely used for body parts -- usually made of plastic or metal -- that come in contact with the body but don’t enter the bloodstream. These include teeth, hearing aid shells, and prosthetic limbs.

“In the past, a dental crown had to be fabricated in a lab, which takes a few days if not a few weeks and two to three trips to the dentist by the patient,” says Chuck Zhang, PhD, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. Now a dentist can take a 3-D scan of a tooth and print the crown on the spot.

The technique gives amputees like Sydney an alternative to ugly and ill-fitting prosthetics. 3-D printing studios often collaborate with clients to design stylized, artistic limbs the user wants to show off -- not hide.  

Zhang and his colleagues at Georgia Tech are working with military veteran amputees to correct their prosthetics’ notoriously poor fit. His team is using 3-D-printed materials to create a prosthetic socket that adapts to the body’s changing fluid levels. It will tighten or loosen as needed so the limb doesn’t fall off or become painfully uncomfortable.

Implantable Devices

3-D-printed plastics and metals have also made their way inside the body. Doctors at University of Michigan’s Mott Children’s Hospital have saved the lives of two babies since 2012 by implanting 3-D-printed plastic splints into their windpipes.

The babies had a rare birth defect called tracheobronchomalacia. Without treatment, their weak airways would collapse, suffocating them. The only treatment is to insert a tracheostomy tube and put the baby on a ventilator for up to several years until, hopefully, the airways become strong enough to stay open on their own.

But 17-month-old Garrett Peterson’s airways weren’t showing any signs of getting stronger while on the ventilator. Doctors in Utah, where the Petersons live, said they had done all they could.

“Everything had to be perfect in the world. Garrett couldn’t cry, or he’d turn blue. He couldn’t poop, or he’d turn blue,” says his father, Jake Peterson. “We just had to hold him and keep him perfectly happy, so it wasn’t realistic to keep him on the ventilator.”

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