3D printing better medicine
Rapid prototyping by additive manufacturing — otherwise known as 3D printing — stands poised to revolutionize healthcare in everything from regenerative medicine to cancer research by facilitating cost-effective technological innovation on a scale never before thought possible.
In many ways, the revolution has already begun. Knee implants and hearing aids are already being manufactured. In 2013, a team at Princeton printed a bionic ear. In 2014, researchers at Harvard created blood vessels embedded within tissue structures. The goal, someday, is a fully functioning, solid, transplantable organ. That may be closer than anyone thinks.
It is a revolution a long time in the making. Invented by Charles Hull in 1984, commercial rapid prototyping initially struggled to find widespread application, given the relatively high investment required. In 2000, Thomas Boland, while tinkering in his lab, happened to reconfigure an old printer to work with collagen. Bioprinting was born. Since then, the healthcare industry hasn't looked back.
With 120,000 Americans currently awaiting organ transplant, the most pressing application of 3D printing is the reliable manufacture of complex organs like hearts, kidneys and livers. But this is also very complicated. Engineering organs is not a particularly new practice. In 2006, Anthony Atala, MD, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, successfully grew and implanted seven bladders by hand. But bladders are only composed of two cell types; livers consist of more than 40. Additive manufacturing offers the opportunity to scale and automate the processes of regenerative medicine as scientists improve their understanding of deep cell biology and vascular architecture. It is currently thought rapid prototyping will yield solid organs within ten years.
3D bioprinting technology is gradually shifting the healthcare market as a whole. Using what is essentially human tissue in early-stage drug development will reduce the industry's reliance on outdated animal models used to approximate efficacy in humans. In the long run, this development will save a lot of money. Creating a new drug is a lengthy, expensive process: on average, it costs 1.2 billion dollars, and takes 12 years. Organovo's 3D commercial tissues will enable pharmaceutical companies to determine the toxicities of potential new drugs before undertaking expensive and time-consuming clinical trials. The end result: a faster and safer drug discovery process with savings passed on to the consumer.
Ultimately, given the substantial regulatory hurdle of FDA approval, one of the more robust current applications of 3D printing lies in medical training and pre-surgical planning. Surgeons today are able to rehearse surgical approaches in realistic environments on anatomically precise 3D printed molds generated from MRI and CT scans. This application has a particularly granular dimension: In being able to practice on models of organs that reproducibly simulate complex structures and individualized medical defects, surgeons can practice specific procedures on specific patients before setting foot in the operating room.
3D printing has created a world in which life-saving medical procedures and important pharmaceutical research are faster, more efficient and safer than ever before. The commercial potential of this young field is formidable. By 2030, the bioprinting sector alone is forecast to be worth 10 billion dollars. With the medical applications of rapid prototyping just now beginning to be unlocked, the only force that will drive this nascent industry is continued innovation. It is widely believed the medical start-up sector will play an increasingly important role in this growth, particularly medical technology incubators that specialize in lending expertise and early-stage investment to small businesses and experienced inventors. The future of medical technology is here, and it's wide-open, ready for anyone with the right vision.