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Health Updated: 06 Nov 2018

3D revolution in healthcare

To a large extent, 3D printing has become more than just a trend thanks to healthcare. 3D makes it possible to create hearts, arms, hands, ears... all tailor-made. And it reduces costs.


A prosthetic hand costs 4000 dollars in the United States, but this can now be reduced to 350 dollars with 3D technology. In March, Alex Pring made news headlines across the world when Robert Downey Jr presented him with a bionic arm. With the stubbornness of the seven-year-old's mother (he was born with a partially mutilated right arm) and the help of several 3D enthusiasts, Alex received an arm.

The team led by Albert Manero, a student at the University of Florida and a member of Limbitless Solutions, launched a project involving engineers, artists, nurses and doctors. Together they created a fixed elbow, a forearm, and a hand designed with autodesk inventora 3D modeling software. After being 3D printed, the pieces were assembled together.

The right arm comes to life thanks to a muscular sensor that detects electrical impulses from Alex's right bicep. Alex now has a new arm thanks to his mother's perseverance (Alison wrote to the organizations to ask for help) and the collaboration of the team that created an arm for 350 dollars after eight months of work. Alex's case is an example of the revolution in healthcare brought about by 3D printing.


Other cases

In Spain, various projects are aimed at creating organs, tissues and prostheses using 3D printing. “This allows us to customize treatment, do a simulation beforehand. For example, with the heart, 3D printing allows us to shape the prosthesis, predict the size and type and customize it for patients”, says Federico Gutiérrez Larraya, head of Pediatric Cardiology at Hospital La Paz (Madrid), in an interview to Diario Médico.

3D is also being researched at Hospital 12 de Octubre (Madrid), as explained by cardiologist Enrique García Torres. Just as Dr. Larraya, he stresses the importance of the new technology in preparing surgeries: "As a surgeon, if you have an exact 3D replica of the heart you are going to do the procedure on, you can prepare the surgery, visualize and plan each step accurately, identify possible complications and, in short, perform a very complex procedure in a much more agile fashion".

Late last year, in a first-time procedure in Spain, surgeons at Hospital Sant Joan de Déu de Esplugues (Barcelona) used a 3D copy to reconstruct the ear of a 17-year-old who had been born with a missing ear. In Michigan, 3D-printed splints saved the life of three babies born with tracheobronchomalacia. These are some of the examples of how this new technology can be applied.

We are now looking toward, Larraya explains in Diario Médico, making “printing biological, using biological material. The process for generating 3D printing is very demanding both financially and intellectually. We need to generate good enough images of each patient, process them and convert them into a language that the 3D printer can understand. This can take two to three weeks, and the cost is also dependent on the material used and the volume involved. Needing a whole heart is not the same as needing a segment of the heart. We are looking at 500 to 2000 euros per piece, and two or three weeks for the process.”

And also in the pharmaceutical industry

The progress of 3D seems to be unstoppable. The last addition to this revolution has been the pharmaceutical industry. In August, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved marketing of a 3D-printed pill for treating epilepsy (Spritam). This production method makes it possible to concentrate a higher amount of the drug into a single dose.

Aprecia Pharmaceuticals explained that: “Thanks to three-dimensional printing, a detailed porous structure can be created that allows the pill to dissolve quicker, while concentrating a higher amount of the drug. The printing system, called ZipDose, is able to concentrate up to 1000 milligrams into a single dose.”

Aprecia's drug, Spritam, drug is the first 3D-printed medication and will reach the market in early 2016. Step by step, a revolution is taking place in one of the areas that have helped 3D the most – healthcare.