On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that doctors had, for the first time, used a 3D printer to create a life-saving artificial airway for a baby boy. The Ohio child was born with a birth defect that cause his airway to collapse, putting him at constant risk of suffocation — until doctors asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to print him a new one.
The FDA agreed, although it still hasn’t adopted an official policy on bioprinting body parts. But the agency will be forced to make a decision soon enough, as increasingly sophisticated 3D printers take the American field by storm. Here are five ways that 3D printers could be a game changer for U.S. health care:
1. Cutting down the backlogged kidney transplant list. 80 percent of the approximately 113,000 Americans on the organ transplant list need a new kidney — but only 30,000 transplants are performed in the U.S. each year, contributing to 4,000 annual kidney-related deaths. But with the use of “Bio-Ink” and 3D printers, that could all change. Researchers at the University of Iowa have been using a “bioprinter” to simulate living tissue structures. Dr. Ibrahim Ozbolat, who is heading the project predicts that fully formed, transplant-ready organs could be an impending reality. “The long-term goal of this [lab] is to create functioning human organs some five or 10 years from now. This is not far-fetched,” said Ozbolat.
2. Regulating diabetes by creating entirely new organs. As if creating organs from stem cells wasn’t enough, Dr. Ozbolat’s team has an even loftier goal in mind: the creation of entirely new organ structures to treat Americans’ medical problems. “One of the most promising research activities is bioprinting a glucose-sensitive pancreatic organ that can be grown in a lab and transplanted anywhere inside the body to regulate the glucose level of blood,” said Ozbolat of his goal. Considering the epidemic-level of diabetes in the United States — and the associated health care costs of the disease — that would be a true medical revolution, essentially nullifying the disease. And if Ozbolat’s team could create that kind of technology, it could potentially be modified to treat cancers and other chronic conditions.
3. Grafting skin onto burn victims. The current process of skin grafting requires the painful removal of skin from an unaffected area of the patient’s body. But researchers at the University of Toronto have developed a method of loading skin cells and various other polymers into a 3D printer to artificially create thick layers of skin. Strikingly, the team used a simplified 3D printer that costs far less than the average $200,000, and claim that their printer can produce tissue for 1/1000th of that cost “even by the most conservative estimates.”
4. Making prostheses resemble the original missing limb. This is a field in which there has already been significant progress with 3D printers — and garners major potential for patient satisfaction and quality of life. The trouble with many prostheses is that they wear down, don’t perfectly conform to patients’ limbs, and can present a stigma for patients who need them. But scientists at Bespoke Innovations have created prosthetic coverings “that perfectly mirror the sculptural symmetry and function of the wearer’s remaining limb,” and can even be customized to conform to the patient’s fashion style. Actually creating an entirely new limb would be ambitious — but considering that doctors recently replaced 75 percent of a man’s skull with a 3D-printed implant, that might not be out of the question, either.
5. Addressing poor Americans’ dental health needs. One aspect of U.S. health care that gets overlooked is the meager availability of dental coverage, especially for the poor. But the use of 3D printing in orthodontics could help change that by making dental procedures cheaper and more efficient — or at the very least could help rectify some the medical consequences of paltry dental coverage. A digital scan of the inside of a patient’s mouth and a 3D printer is all that’s needed to create crowns, bridges, and dentures. It also makes the process less invasive and more accurate by making it unnecessary to create physical molds of patients’ mouths.