Imagine a world where hip implants, prosthetic limbs — even hearts and other vital organs — could be available to doctors on demand. It’s not so far off with the proliferation of 3D printing.
Unlike regular printers that apply ink to paper, 3D printers layer materials such as plastic, metal, or even tissue cells, to create three-dimensional objects. This means that, doctors, engineers, and even average users can create nearly any object they can plot out via 3D-printer software or any number of open-source projects found online. So anything from iPhone cases to miniature organs is fair game.
Doctors and medical researchers are looking to 3D printing to create on-demand and custom solutions for health problems. For instance, surgeons at Southampton University Hospitals created a custom hip joint for a woman who had previously undergone six operations to try to correct her injury, according to an article in The Telegraph. The hip was designed to her exact measurements based on CAT scans and then printed in titanium.
Plenty of people are finding interesting applications for 3D printing outside the lab too. Business Insider reported on a high school engineering class that created and printed a prosthetic hand for a little girl in Rockford, Illinois. The prosthetic could have cost the family up to $50,000, but the students were able to create a similar model with $5 worth of plastic and fasteners. And boingboing blogged about a man in Berlin who printed his own portable wheelchair ramps. They’re lightweight and small enough to fit into his bag — a simple solution to making his city more accessible.
3D printers are still a bit out of reach for the average user, but plenty of hospitals and labs are investing in this new technology and exploring ways that it can help patients. It’s not hard to picture a future where new body parts can be custom made on-demand — and hopefully eliminate long waits on the transplant list and lengthy courses of treatment.