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3D Printing in Healthcare: Promises and Challenges

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Prosthetic arms from e-Nabling the Future. Photo by Krina Patel.

The  INSIDE 3D PRINTING conference, held at the Jacob Javits Center in NYC from April 15 – 17, 2015, offered insights into the positive inroads 3D printing has made in various areas of health care, including tissue generation, mechanical prosthetics, implants and even customized CPAP masks.

The discussions within the conference’s 3D printing medical track highlighted three unique advantages and opportunities for innovative uses of 3D printing in healthcare: rapid prototyping, personalization and “blended reality.”

Dr. Scott Hollister, Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan, was at the conference. His work is in the design and fabrication of the bioresorbable tracheal splint, which was featured in the May 23, 2013 issue of NEJM. He sees the uses of 3D printing in healthcare as being specific to “education, implants and devices, and tissue regeneration.”

Hollister’s team has received a Humanitarian Use Devices (HUD) designation from the FDA for their bioresorbable tracheal splint and will begin clinical trials soon.

One thing that was clear that the conference was that advances in materials available have amplified the uses of 3D printing in healthcare. Severine Zygmont, co-founder of Oxford Performance Materials, Inc., presented an advanced 3-D printing platform for skeletal reconstruction, highlighting that their proprietary material increases efficiency but not costs. More importantly, the platform gives  surgeons and engineers the chance to work closely together to deliver patient-specific interventions.

This inter-disciplinary collaboration was also seen in a project called ‘e-Nabling the Future.’ Jon Schull, the project’s founder, spoke about how the project started: with the synchronization of “internet technologies, 3-D printing and goodwill.” As part of the project, thousands of volunteers from a range of disciplines help to provide free 3D printed upper limb prosthetics to children and adults around the world.

Indeed, 3-D printing can play a transformative role in the manufacture of emergency and compassionate use devices. But clinical trials, FDA regulations and clearances are among the challenges in the large-scale adoption and scaling up of 3D printing technology in health care. Quality control and quality assurance are yet another challenge for scalability.

What’s needed right now, according to Merck’s Marc Durante, is education and awareness about the potential that 3D printing has to offer in healthcare.

Krina Patel

Krina Patel

    Krina Patel is a writer/illustrator and educator committed to building provider-patient relationships. Dr. Patel’s doctoral research on the body and cognition at Harvard University and her experience adopting and promoting technology in education brings her to her current work in the health and technology sector. Follow her on Twitter, @positivelylearn.

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