Essay: The application of 3D printing in medicine

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  • Published on: December 5, 2015
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  • The application of 3D printing in medicine
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The application of 3D printing in medicine
3D printing technology has been applied in medicine since the early 2000s when it was first used in making custom prosthetics and dental implants. Since this time, the technology and the usage of the technology has considerably evolved. Recent reviews published describe the uses of 3D printing in producing ears, bones, windpipes, exoskeletons, eyeglasses, stem cells alongside novel dosage forms and drug delivery devices. Today, the technology has emerged as a cost effective, customized and efficient manufacturing option for the medical device creation industry.
The current medical uses of 3D printing can be categorized into several broad classes; pharmaceutical research, tissue and organ fabrication and prosthetics creation. The technology promises to deliver hugely on different counts such as personalization according to the patients or users, flexibility in design and manufacturing, reduced material wastage, elimination of specialized tooling as well as the low lifecycle costs. Combined with the maturity of the 3D printing process, these methods can be used in developing many new medical devices and procedures which have been expensive, difficult to create or not patient friendly. At present, this is a USD 700 million industry with only USD 11 million invested in medical applications. However, despite the small percentage, there are prospects that in a decade’s time, the industry will have a rapid growth with a higher percentage dedicated to the medical sector.
As earlier stated, the technology is applied in a range of fields. For instance, it is largely employed in bioprinting tissues and organs. Organ and tissue failure as a result of age, diseases, accidents and birth defects is a critical medical issue. Today, most treatments rely on organ transplants from deceased and living donors. However, there is a chronic shortage of organs available for transplant purposes as derived from recent surveys. According to research conducted, as of early 2014, about 120,000 people in the US were awaiting an organ transplant. I addition to the shortage, the surgery involved as well as the follow up is very expensive costing over $300 billion as by 2012. 3D printing has been employed to solve these problems. It is now possible to develop replacement organs from cells taken from a patient’s body. This minimizes the risk of tissue rejection and eliminates the need for taking prolonged immunosuppressant’s which greatly cripples the transplant process.
The technology is also used in pharmaceutical fabrication and research. The complex drug manufacturing processes are easily standardized by the use of 3D printing to make them simpler and more viable. So far, the methods promise to be very transformative and suitable. The technology has been adopted in the production of personalized medicine dosages and development of unique drug forms. Moreover, it has been successfully employed in the development of more reliable medical devices as part of customized and personalized treatments.
Moreover, 3D printing is successfully used in making standard and complex customized prosthetic limbs and surgical implants in a shorter time. This approach has been widely used in fabricating dental, spinal and hip implants. Previously, this process took a longer duration making it more complicated. Therefore, the ability to produce custom implants and prostheses significantly solves a clear problem in orthopedics especially in complex cases when standard implants are not sufficient.
Individual complexities and variances of the human body make the use of 3D printed models ideal for surgical preparations. Basically, the presence of a tangible model of a patient’s anatomy for the physician to study or use in simulating a surgery is preferable to relying on MRI or CT scans only. These may not be as instructive as they are viewable in 2D on a flat screen. Similarly, 3D printed models are more essential in surgical training which enhances the understanding and study process. Additionally, the technology is also helpful to neurosurgeons as the models help improve on the accuracy.
Conversely, despite the uses, the use of the technology has been faced by a series of controversies. There has been a continuous concern over the safety and overall security. 3D printing has been employed for criminal purposes raising issues. Similarly, lack of a suitable regulatory framework has equally slowed the adoption of the technology. Also, the technology has been categorized by unrealistic and hyped expectations with proponents promising so many outcomes which are yet to be achieved. As a result, the use of the technology has been crippled over the years.
In conclusion, 3D technology promises to solve a myriad of complexities in the medical field. As the evolution of the technology continues, a lot of new discoveries are expected and certainly we will see more usage of the technology in treatment procedures. This will certainly lower the overall treatment costs and equally increase the accuracy and the reliability of the methods.

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