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THE BASICS OF MEDICAL 3D PRINTING

Overview

In this article we take a general look at the medical printing from its origins to today and we also take a quick peek at the near future. This is a glance on the medical printing and starts a series of blogs where we take a closer look on medical 3D printing and its uses.

What is Medical 3D Printing?

While the words “medical 3D printing” elicits the ideas of Blade Runneresque, Terminatorish ideas of replicants and tissue covered battlefield endoskeletons in the end medical 3D printing is just 3D printing but for medical purposes from specialized tools and tooling to grafts like artificial skin, ear cartilage and bone grafts.

The idea is the exact same thing as the “run of the mill normal” 3D printing but using more specialized and exotic materials like collagen. At the same time what makes medical printing more difficult is the fact that the tissue created has to be able to live and the material expertise is perhaps the most important thing in the process.

Beginnings

Originally 3D printing was invented by Charles Hull, as stereolithography, in the early 1980s. Eventually the technology and procedures have come to revolutionize manufacturing and is about to revolutionize modern medicine.

It was soon realized that using 3D printing one can build and create almost anything if the resolution and the media used is evolved enough. So far we’ve seen simple things printed from plastics to stone in exacting architectural forms. We’ve seen simple objects to complete machines that work with the power of wind.

One of the defining aspects of humanity is that once someone creates the tools we are able to take those tools, those ideas, and apply them to just about anything and everything, we are able to take a concept and bring that concept to a whole new field of science and apply it there.

It is this ingeniousness that created the medical 3D printing. If one could create intricate pattern with plastics, stone and all those things one could easily enough change the paint, so to speak, into living cells and tissue and thus create 3D printed skin, bones, blood vessels and more.

Where we are

We will take a more serious look at the printable things later, however here is a quick and dirty rundown of where we are right now.

Right now, we are capable of printing quite many things, from veins to tissue, both synthetic and organic, as well as organs and valves. Similarly, the 3D printing doesn’t stop here, even though the biological printing is more media sexy. We can print custom drugs and medicines and we can also print with bacteria and other biomatter.

We can use 3D printing for tooling as well as guides. I, the writer, have had to go through radiation therapy and it was very arduous process to get fitted for the guides and the “tub” for targeting the radiation bombardment. With 3D scanning and printing the whole fitting would have been faster and more comfortable. Another interesting piece for 3D printing is being able to take 3D information from an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and from this data we can print models of tumors or organs. This allows doctors to train for surgeries as well as use “real” tumors in teaching, as well as show the patient what they’re talking about.

This leads to patient safety, comfort and expenses. 3D printing (and scanning) are technologies that are changing the world and eventually will more than revolutionize medical field. We are seeing the future starting to unfold right now.

The Future

As a technology enthusiast I find the present interesting enough, however mankind has always dreamed big and through technology we’ve evolved to something quite different from where we started from. Right now, we have drugs that have been 3D printed so that the pills give correct effect, however in the future we will see more and better targeted drugs using 3D printing as a guide, we will see not just organs and small parts of vascular systems replaced but we there will come a day when we can print entire limbs and maybe even working bodies. We can already reattach severed limbs and we are seeing the rise of cybernetic, mechanical, limbs through 3D printing. Once we’ve mastered this we will be able to print limbs and replace the parts we’ve lost.

Here we are sailing into dangerous waters, however. With CRISPR and other genome editing tools we are very close to having designer babies and with highly advanced medical 3D printing and materials we will be able to make stronger and more endurable muscles, bones, cartilage and tendons. Here we are moving into the so called “super soldier” territory. Every technology we have has always been used for war. We will have to be careful on the ethics as well as the uses.

3D printing is the now but even more importantly it is the future. We must be careful with it lest we abuse it.

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