Wearable Tech World Feature Article
April 10, 2013

3D Printing, Bionics Save Lives and Give Surgeons a Whole New Edge

There has been quite a bit made of 3D printing in recent days, with plenty of opportunities and controversy to go around. But for surgeons in Japan, 3D printing may have just recently saved a life.

In this case, a child was set for a liver transplant from the child's parent. Naturally, the parent's liver was significantly larger than that of the child, so the liver needed to be scaled down. That's where the 3D printing came in, and may very well have saved the child's life.

What the Japanese surgeons did with the 3D printing was as simple as it was brilliant; they used a 3D printed model of the donor liver – done in an acrylic resin – to simulate almost flawlessly the donor liver. They then practiced carving down the model liver such that it would be of the correct dimensions to fit into in the space left by the child's liver.

The 3D-printed practice liver saw a successful transplant.

The concept of industrial 3D printers making appearances in surgical suites isn't unprecedented; more and more surgeons are seeing the incredible power of constructing individualized – even personalized –copies of patients' organs as reference models. It doesn't stop there, either; scientists are already working on using 3D printing to create embryonic stem cells and living human tissue that can be attached directly to the body.

While creating actual body parts is several years out, the earliest stages of such efforts have already been seen thanks to a group of researchers creating a 3D-printed lower jaw for one patient, and 3D-printed prosthetic devices showing up at Techonomy 2012.

A 3D printed prosthetic hand

Indeed, the process is visibly moving forward, as two printer makers – Stratasys (News - Alert) and 3D Systems Corp. –both offer printers that can replicate a human organ. While acrylic resin is commonly used thanks to its translucent appearance, which allows a sort of inside-out view, polyvinyl alcohol is also used to create more realistic models for surgical training.

Surgeons, not surprisingly, believe 3D printing is an excellent solution, with doctors feeling more confident about surgeries thanks to the practice involved. But the price of an industrial 3D printer, which can reach $500,000 dollars, makes it difficult for smaller hospitals to get one, and having the necessary knowledge to operate such a printer can be difficult to develop, leaving some hospitals hiring engineers to produce the models.

3D printing has generally been catching on with increased fervor, as more and more printers emerge onto the market at prices affordable by regular consumers, as well as smaller businesses. Applications for 3D printing technology, meanwhile, have skyrocketed to match, with one of the most recent applications being the controversial practice of creating firearms from a 3D printing process.

With the potential for 3D printers to generate actual human organs and limbs, it's no wonder the entire concept of 3D printing is viewed with both wonder and alarm.

3D printing isn't likely to slow down from here, so surgical practice on replicated limbs – not to mention the potential for completely new limbs – is likely to carry on, hopefully with a positive effect.

Edited by Braden Becker

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