3D printing allows for development of new drugs, devices, and maybe organs

When it first debuted, 3D printing seemed like a sci-fi fantasy. Yet as technology improves,  printers are getting cheaper and  printings are getting better. Many of these techniques have been applied to the medical field,  driving the costs of developing prosthetic devices down and inviting discussions of 3D bioprinting to allow for the replication of human tissues.

How does it work?

The printing process starts by creating a virtual design in a 3D modeling program, or by using a 3D scanner to copy an existing object. The software then slices the final model into horizontal layers that may number in the hundreds or even thousands. The object is then printed, layer by layer. Different layering production techniques are available, such as softening or melting the material. The types of materials that can be used for printing has grown so substantially that even cars and clothing have been made using a 3D printer. As with most new technology, prices for the basic printers have fallen, with some now affordable enough for those who would like to print things at home for a hobby.

3D printed…medicine?

As surprising as it sounds, the FDA just approved a 3D printed pill. Because these printers are able to work with so  many different compounds,  Aprecia Pharmaceuticals was able to create the drug Spritam in this manner using chemical inks. Spritam®, a dissolvable tablet, is used for treating particular types of seizures in both children and adults with epilepsy. The 3D printing technology will allow Aprecia Pharmaceuticals to adjust the doses without requiring patients to measure or split pills. The company intends to produce other drugs for the treatment of central nervous system diseases.

Bioprinting: the new organ bank?

The 3D pill is another item in a long line of medical related 3D printed objects. Three years ago, a newborn with a rare condition that causes the airways to collapse was implanted with a 3D splint. The procedure was successful enough that it was repeated in two other children. The condition, although not always fatal, puts children at great risk until about age 3, when their airways strengthen and stabilize. This 3D printed splint was designed to begin dissolving into the body around this time, and that is precisely what it is doing. The team that designed the splint is now moving on to test the splint in a larger, 30-person study. The technology in the 3D printer makes this previously cost-prohibitive research much more affordable, as the splints must be customized for each child. Traditional development methods would have been too costly for companies to invest in researching and creating this device for such an uncommon disease.

The future of health care has changed drastically due to the technological advances of these printers. Wake Forest University researchers have just shown that it is theoretically possible to print human cartilage for implants. They created an implantable cartilage from plastic polymers designed to attract healthy cartilage cells to grow around the implant. Many in the medical field, including the U.S. Army, seem to think that these developments are precursors to bioprinting tissues and even organs. Although these developments are expected to take a decade at the very least to come to fruition, researchers are at least now able to work with sample 3D tissue models. In the meantime, the technology is still meeting many other needs. In July 2015, the Department of Veterans Affairs held a Prosthetics and Assistive Technology Challenge to accelerate the development of technologies that will help veterans with disabilities. Engineers worked with 3D printers and the provided CAD software to design and test their ideas. The VA hopes that this challenge will create an open ecosystem for new prosthetics and assistive technologies.