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Recent Medical Applications of 3-D Printing and the Future of Medical Device Manufacture

Recent Medical Applications of 3-D Printing and the Future of Medical Device Manufacture

By: Sarah Massey, M.Sc.

Posted on: in Blogs | Medical Device Blogs

Last week, the Xtalks Blog posted an article entitled, “Printing Your Prescription: How 3-D Printing Technology is Affecting the Pharmaceutical Industry”. This article reviewed potential applications for 3-D printing in drug design, development and manufacturing, after the FDA approved the first 3-D printed drug, earlier this year.

While the use of 3-D printers in the pharmaceutical industry is still in its infancy, three-dimensional printing technology has been used for other applications such as medical device manufacture and improvements in research tools available for drug testing.

3-D printing has enabled the fabrication of polymer organ models which are essential in helping surgeons prepare for complicated procedures. Inexpensive prosthetic limb manufacture has also been possible thanks to the advent of three-dimensional printing. Synthetic tissue scaffolds and 3-D tissue constructs for research and therapeutic purposes, are unique additional uses of the printing equipment.

Model of the Heart

The fabrication of polymer organ models to study complicated morphological characteristics of diseased, cancerous and malformed tissue, is a simple but brilliant tool. Physicians – particularly surgeons – are capable of viewing the printed organ from all angles, and making educated strategies to repair and correct the organ’s abnormalities.

This ability to make a 3-D model based on the exact characteristics of the organ, taken from CT scans and MRI data, is an exciting venture into the world of personalized medicine. To date, 3-D printing has been used to create anatomical models of human tissues such as the kidney, liver and even a severely calcified aorta.

Earlier this year, doctors in Nanjing, China were able to print a 1:1 3-D replica of the heart of a 9-month-old baby born with a congenital heart defect. The boy was born with a heart disease called Tetralogy of Fallot, which resulted in the presence of five distinct holes – the largest of which was over 2 cm in diameter – in the vital organ.

“Such a big hole in the heart is even difficult for adults to bear, not to mention a three-month-old child,” said Dr. Sun Jian, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Nanjing Children’s Hospital. “If not treated early, if we waited until the child’s pulmonary hypertension [was] higher than [the] limit, we might [have lost] the opportunity to save his life.”

Since the holes were very difficult to study using conventional 2-D imaging, the doctors decided to print a 3-D model of the boy’s heart in order to accurately prepare for corrective surgery. The doctors repaired the gaps and the boy is expected to make a successful recovery.

Before the fabrication of the model of the boy’s heart, he underwent an initial surgery in order to repair the holes, which took a total of 143 minutes. The second surgery – during which doctors were aided by the 3-D printed model – only took 25 minutes to complete. Since this type of repair requires invasive cardiothoracic surgery, it’s important that the total time the patient spends in the operating room is minimized.

According to Jian, this was the first child in China with a congenital heart disease, to be saved by 3-D printing technology. “It is good news for other children with complex congenital heart disease, especially for those with intracardiac malformation complex structures and [for the] treatment of vascular anomalies.”


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