How 3-D Printers are Revolutionizing Medicine

The following selected excerpts are from an article printed in the Parade, Sunday, October 12, 2014 entitled, “Everything That’s Fit to Print,” written by Jessica Winter. To view the entire article visit Parade.com.

Anastasia was born with amniotic band syndrome, in which strands of amniotic membrane get attached to and tangled up with the fetus; the condition leads to congenital abnormalities. In Anastasia’s case, her left arm ends in a tiny, partial palm and buttonlike buds of fingers. A standard prosthesis could run upward of $60,000, and a fast-growing kid like her could outgrow it every six to eight months, creating astronomical expenses. As a result, “traditional prostheses weren’t an evenue that we considered for Anastasia at this stage of her life,” says Wanda Oliveras, Anastasia’s grandmother. But then Oliveras saw a story on her Facebook news feed about a prosthesis that can be cheaply produced and repaired, called Robohand. “We couldn’t contain our excitement,” says Oliveras. “We thought we could finally get a prosthetic device that could allow Anastasia to use fingers to pick up and grab things.” Anastasia’s new hand (she requested it in bright blue, in homage to her stepfather’s favorite football team, the New York Giants) ran just $2,000, and it can be replaced at a fraction of that cost.

How it works
A sweet aroma is always wafting around the MakerBot store in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. The scent emanates from the humming printers themselves, which use not ink but spools of polylactic acid (PLA) filament, a bioplastic derived from corn. “We’ll have classes here on a Saturday morning with machines running, and people will say, “It smells like waffles,” says Jenifer Howard, MakerBot’s PR director.

What exactly are those syrup-scented machines doing? Whether it’s happening at the industrial level, in a medical lab, or on a desktop, 3-D printing follows the same process. It starts with a blueprint created in a 3-D digital modeling program. Taking instructions from those digital files, the 3-D printer builds the object by laying down one superthin layer at a time of the material at hand, which could be anything from metal to plastic, ceramics to food purees to human cells. With MakerBot’s desktop 3-D printers, the PLA filament is spooled like cable in the back of the machine and fed into the machine’s extruder, which heats up the material to make it pliable and passes it through a tiny hole to “draw” the object, layer by layer, which can take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days.

Three-dimensional printing originated in the mid-1980’s with Charles Hull, inventor of a layer-by-layer manufacturing process he called stereolithography, which could be used for rapid prototyping and for small-batch production of specialized parts. Since then, the technology has been a mainstay of fields such as aerospace and automotive engineering, but it wasn’t until MakerBot arrived on the scene in 2009 that the notion of personal 3-D printing gained a foothold, along with the emergence of Thingiverse and, just this past summer, the opening of Amazon’s 3-D printing store.

In fact, MakerBot has become one of the most important players in the field, thanks to its relatively low-cost desktop printers (Ty Esham’s version costs under $2,000, compared to industrial models that can run $100,000 or more) and the passion of MakerBot’s CEO and cofounder, Bre Pettis. In February at the University of Louisville’s engineering school, an exact 3-D model of an ailing 14-month old’s heart was created on the MakerBot printer. The baby’s medical team used the model to plan his life-saving surgery. And in August, images of a disabled Chihuahua named TurboRoo zipping around in his new 3-D-printed wheeled cart went viral even before he was featured on the Today show.

A Medical Revolution
By Far the most exciting ways in which 3-D printing is being used are in the medical field. Across the U.S., research teams have been making rapid progress in 3-D printing a bewildering array of human body parts: ear cartilage and muscle tissue; skin, skulls, and bones; organs large and small.

“It’s nuts!” says Faiz Bhora, M.D., chief of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Roosevelt and St. Luke’s Hospitals, whose team is working toward a breakthrough: the first 3-D printed tracheas to be successfully implanted in humans. “I think within five years, we are going to see parts of 3-D-printed organs being implanted, as well as things like jawbones, tibia bones-things that are not very complicated and where failure is not usually catastrophic. The next step up perhaps is tubes and cylinders-the airway, perhaps, the ureters, arteries, veins. The third tier will be whole organs, heart valves, maybe parts of the kidney, nerve cells.

And Anastasia Rivas is benefitting from that customization. Her new hand is not as sophisticated as many traditional prostheses-she can close only all fingers at once, not a digit at a time. But the Robohand has other benefits. “If she outgrows it, we can print another,” Esham says. “If she breaks it, it’s easy to fix. There are no batteries to recharge. She can get her hand wet and dirty; you can’t do that with the expensive prosthetic hands, even though getting wet and dirty is what hands do! 3-D printing gives you something light-weight, cheap, and functional.

“The kids at schol think my Robohand is really cool,” says Anastasia, who recently started fifth grade. “Now I can pick up my eyeglass case, and I can pick up a pencil, although that is still hard to do-I keep practicing.” Anastasia also wants to practice using the hand to play baseball and baketball and to ride her bike. As far as Anastasia’s grandmother, Wanda Oliveras, is concerned, the sky is the limit, and she’s as bullish as anyone on the future of technology.