New health miracles

The amazing 3D printing process helps humans in many ways and may save lives.

Story: Joe Angione

Three-dimensional printing first came on the manufacturing scene in the early 1980s as an expedient way to produce plastic items. The 3D printing process builds a three-dimensional object from a computer-aided design (CAD) model, usually by repeatedly adding material layer on top of layer. It’s sometimes called “additive manufacturing.”

Through the years, the process was used to make a variety of tools, auto and airplane parts, and, for a time, simple “do-it-yourself” firearms, which alarmed law enforcement agencies that feared guns would be made without control and get into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

This printing is being used now to develop new food items, squeezing them out layer by layer, such as chocolates, crackers, pasta, and pizza. Recent 3D printing experiments have created plant-based meat substitutes mimicking meat texture and taste.

Fashion designers are also experimenting with 3D printing of bikinis, dresses, and shoes for many sports uses.

Today, 3D printing builds a wide range of industrial products and medical items, such as prosthetics and, most recently, models of bone structures and internal organs to aid physicians in planning various surgeries. For some time now, 3D-printed, personalized surgical instruments have been applied to areas of surgery including total joint replacement and facial reconstruction.

Another excellent application of bio-3D printing is in dentistry, where lost teeth and damaged gums can be replaced with perfectly matched real teeth and gum tissue.

The most exciting application of the 3D production process is in the area of new human health benefits. Leaping forward from creating anatomical models of body structures and organs are applications in generating skin replacement tissue to assist burn and cancer victims in their recovery.

However, creating new skin tissue may have to be done “off world” in facilities like the International Space Station because, when printing delicate layers of living cells, the structures tend to collapse in Earth’s gravity. When this problem is solved, the door is wide open to 3D printing of organ replacements, particularly ones that are personalized, patient-matched implants, including extensive vascular systems, designed to fit one unique individual.

Imagine! Your heart begins to seriously fail, your surgeon makes detailed measurements, and soon you get delivery of a 3D-printed, brand-new functioning heart. It would be a perfect match for the one you were born with…and no waiting on a long list for a heart donor. 

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