Described as the third industrial revolution and the driving force behind a manufacturing renaissance in America's industrial heartland, 3D printing might also disrupt an industry that has so far shown to be fairly disruption-proof: the health-care industry. New 3-D bioprinters are already capable of printing out everything from dental fixtures and prosthetic limbs to custom hearing aids. Researchers at Wake Forest have just proven, as the latest proof of concept, that it’s theoretically possible to print out human cartilage for implants, an important next step on the path to printing complex human tissue and even human organs.
The future of health care, viewed in 3D, is rather astounding. Imagine printing out replacement tissue patches during the course of a game for injured professional athletes, printing out a brand-new heart as a retirement gift for your older loved ones (nothing says “I love you” like a beating heart made out of real human tissue), skipping the long queue for organ transplants by printing up a new kidney in your garage, or shopping for designer prosthetic limbs (known as "fairings") the same way you currently shop for clothes online.
The U.S. Army, via the Armed Forces Institute for Regenerative Medicine, is certainly taking all this into consideration, partnering with Wake Forest on new regenerative techniques for repairing injured soldiers on the battlefield with 3D tissue. There have already been steps toward using "bio-ink" to create heart valves, lung tissue and bone implants. And major pharmaceutical companies are coming around to the realization that 3D printing technologies might result in substantially lower R&D costs for bringing new drugs to market.
However, there’s still a long way to go before we’re attempting anything quite so grandiose. Most experts think it will be at least a decade before we’re routinely printing out human tissue and organs. For now, it’s far more likely that we’ll see industrial companies such as Boeing and GE print out replacement engine parts than it is that hospitals will print out replacement body parts. Many 3-D printing technologies are still in their infancy, and even the sophisticated 3D cartilage experiment from Wake Forest is still only in the testing stage for lab rats. For now, the “killer app” for these 3D bioprinters appears to be cranking out sample 3D tissues for disease and drug researchers, who until now, have had to deal with imprecise 2-dimensional tissue models.
Yet, it’s hard to ignore that 3D printing has become one of those disruptive technologies that is almost ready for its prime time debut. And what better place to start than health care? Just as personal computers were once only the preserve of DIY hobbyist clubs before entering the mainstream, 3D printers could follow the same trajectory. After all, 3D printers now have their own retail stores. Moreover, this holiday season has brought a number of impressive 3D printing success stories, everything from the launch of the first-ever 3D photobooth in America (instead of taking your photo, it spews out a tiny 3D replica of your head) to the use of 3D printers to print out replica Aston Martins for James Bond stunt scenes in "Skyfall."
So will 3D printers make their way into hospitals anytime soon? For 3D printers to disrupt healthcare, doctors will need to be comfortable enough with the technology to understand how new bioprinters could transform their own medical practice one day. Once they experiment with consumer 3-D printing, they will understand that 3-D printing is about more than just printing out cute little plastic gifts. If you think the future of film in 3-D is cool, just wait until you see the future of healthcare in 3-D.
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