3-D printing, a process that just a decade ago belonged in the science fiction genre, is now taking its place in the science community as a common way to create customized tools and even save lives.
Another life was saved on Feb. 16 as, “A two-year-old girl born with a hole in her heart had a life-saving operation in London last month thanks to a 3-D printer. Perhaps equally astounding is that she’s not the first,” according to gigaom.com, a ‘global voice on emerging technologies’ news website.
Mina Khan was born with a hole in the wall between two chambers of her heart and the surgeons at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London were able to design a bespoke patch, to practice and perfect how to stitch it into place, and ultimately perform the surgery successfully on the girl’s actual heart said gigaom.com.
Abby Roberson, pre-nursing student at John Brown University, said, “I didn’t know 3-D printing could be used for the medical world.”
“I think it is awesome and a huge step in the medical field,” Roberson added.
Channing Gallardo, pre-nursing student at the University said, “I love that it can be a multipurpose project. I knew of a young boy that received a new hand from 3-D printing.”
In January, doctors at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles used a 3-D printed model of a child’s heart to aid them in an open-heart surgery, according to Science Daily. Esther Perez was born with a hole in her heart, a congenital defect that would usually require extensive open-heart surgery.
Surgeons usually must go in blind, figuring out how to repair heart tissue on the fly, but the longer the chest cavity is opened, the more dangerous such surgery is for the patient.
However, with the help of a detailed CT scan, surgeons were able to 3-D print a detailed plastic model of Perez’ heart. With this model, her doctors strategized the best way to perform the surgery, and the procedure was finished in much less time and much more safely than was ever possible before.
Roberson expressed some concern for the long-term affects of 3-D printing.
“I would love to see if the amount of labor and cost truly makes the product worth the time. I would hope that the results of 3-D printing could sustain life as well as save it,” Roberson said.
Perez is not the only one whose heart has been modeled on a 3-D printer. Though there are not enough of such surgeries yet to tell whether this tactic is better than previous methods, several successful surgeries are creating a promising track record.
3-D printing has many uses in the medical field, including printing customized implants for hip and facial reconstruction surgery at the University Hospital of Wales. According to the BBC, these customized implants are much cheaper for both the hospital and the patients.
NASA is also taking advantage of 3-D printings. Popular Science reports that a 3-D printer on the International Space Station (ISS) has printed many useful tools, including a component for a printer itself and a custom-designed ratchet wrench.
The wrench was designed, approved and printed in less than a week. Usually, it takes months to deliver replacement parts and tools to the ISS.
Personal 3-D printers are now available as well. Though expensive, these personal printers are becoming more advanced and common, some of them costing as little as $500. The technology has even been applied to hand-held use. For about $100, a person could acquire a pen that “prints” plastic onto paper or in mid-air.
The technology continues to advance. Scientists are now working on 3-D printing with living cells, an application that could have wide-ranging consequences—from printing personalized replacement organs out of a patient’s own living tissue to printing death-free steak and leather from cow’s cells.