3D printing is poised to change the face of medicine with mind-boggling innovations ranging from production of customized surgical tools for complex operations to daily printing of a combo pill that contains all of your medications. Although many talk about advances in genomics as the driving force of personalized medicine, 3D printing has the potential to create uniquely individualized solutions for almost every aspect of healthcare. Here’s a brief review of some current applications of the technology in medicine.

 

Surgical applications

One of the largest uses for 3D printing currently is for pathologic conditions of the head and neck. This includes both dental and craniofacial applications. The majority of cases to date have been reconstructive where there is a need for surgical planning and design and fabrication of custom-made implants, prostheses, and surgical guides. Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s and the National Naval Medical Center‘ 3D printed models have become crucially important in the treatment of service members with severe head trauma and craniotomies from blast injuries.

Neurosurgical applications include printing of 3D models of the skull and blood vessels. This not only facilitates surgical training, but it can also play an important role in surgical planning. For example, 3D printed models delineate the anatomic relationship of tumors to critical brain structures much more clearly than imaging modalities, such as MRI or CT. Printed models can also elucidate the relationship of complex aneurysms to adjacent brain and bony structures. This can be used to plan the surgical approach, instruments needed, and appropriate treatment.

Preoperative planning with 3D models can also be used to reduce operating time, improve outcomes, and decrease complications. In fact, in 2017, hospitals in Dubai will adopt 3D printing to improve the accuracy of surgeries. The hospitals will be able to print artificial limbs, denture molds, fracture casts, and models of organs for patients to simulate surgery before the procedure.

 

Heart and lungs

Vascular models are the second most common application for 3D printing after bone models. Cardiovascular applications utilize source images from CT and MR images. Printed models are helpful to capture complex anatomy such as congenital heart disease. They have also been used to depict and plan surgery for cardiac valve replacement, cardiac tumors, and cardiac and vascular aneurysms.

Chest applications include printing of airways for planning procedures, either for implants or for surgical resection of tumors in the lungs or mediastinum. Recently, an infant with tracheomalacia (easily collapsible airway) who had difficulty breathing successfully received a 3D printed airway splint. For tumor resection, particularly in patients with variant anatomy, 3D printing provides data on anatomic relationships that is helpful for surgical planning.

 

Other applications

There are so many ways that 3D printing is being used now and will be in the future, that I can only list a few examples here (feel free to add to the list via the comment section below). Here are some of my favorites:

  • On-site printing of medical equipment, particularly in underserved areas which may not have access to all the latest tools
  • Creating fully customized medical tools for difficult surgeries in which the standard supplies may not be as safe or effective
  • Printing customized drugs which could allow for patients to print their daily medication in one pill, rather than having to take multiple combinations of separate pills
  • Medical education and training for surgical procedures with 3D printed models
  • Printing customized prostheses that will allow for more personalized products that are produced in shorter time for lower cost
  • Possible future developments include printed transplant organs like heart, livers, and ears

Other uses for 3D printing may include patient education and medical education. Using models with patients to show their disease process and how surgery will be performed, could lead to higher satisfaction in the choice of treatment planning. Medical staff can use 3D models in their training to supplement, or even one day, replace cadavers. 3D printing can reproduce complex and rarely seen variant anatomy and pathology to allow medical staff to prepare and train for complex surgeries.

What about my specialty—radiology? Can 3D printing be used to increase radiologists’ value to other physicians as well as patients? What about instead of our reports being composed of words describing pathology treatment, physicians could request a 3D printout of the pathology to better plan procedures and better explain to patients about their disease process? What if we could print out models to show patients so that they can better understand their findings?

 

The bottom line

The potential of 3D printing for the future of medicine is almost limitless. Who would have imagined that the technology that is being used to make little plastic things would one day be used in so many different ways to heal and/or replace parts of the human body?

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