How will 3D printing change healthcare?

3D printing technology continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Medical professionals, in particular, have been quick to adopt the technology because it cuts costs and improves care.

Many are already familiar with implants or 3D printed prosthetics, two of the first disciplines to adopt the technology. Less known, but equally important, is the impact 3D printing could have on time spent in operating theatres. 3D printed models made using MRI images as a guide, for example, can help surgeons plan procedures, thus shaving costly minutes off surgery time—the average minute of operating-theatre time costs $70 before the surgeon’s fee.

Last year, this technique was used to map out a tumour growing in psychotherapist Pamela Scott’s skull and led to her neurosurgeon’s decision to use a minimally invasive procedure to remove it. Without the 3D model, Ms Scott’s surgeons would have removed the tumour using the conventional procedure—a craniotomy. Her skull would have been opened and doctors would have had to lift the brain to remove the tumour, a much riskier and more lengthy procedure.

Although rare, this use of a 3D-MRI combination is not an isolated case: The same method was used in Brazil just a few weeks ago to successfully operate on a child with cloverleaf skull syndrome—a deformation of the skull that can pose risks to brain development. As 3D printing speeds and precision increase, the use of custom 3D patient models could become standard in planning difficult surgeries or explaining diseases to patients.

The final frontier, of course, is bioprinting. For many years, scientists were limited in the thickness and complexity of the live tissues they could create because lab-grown tissues lacked the minute blood vessels found in nature. The conventional process left cells on the interior starving for oxygen and nutrients and without a means to get rid of carbon dioxide and other waste.

A new method, developed by a team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, now allows tissue to be formed with multiple types of cells and a vascular structure. “We’re trying to tackle it piece by piece,” says David Kolesky, lead author of the Harvard vascular tissue research and speaker at this week’s Inside 3D Printing conference in New York City. While Mr Kolesky made clear that printing full-size replacement organs is decades off, he noted that scientists are already able to produce micro-organ tissues, like the liver, that can be used to test new drug therapies. This application is welcome news to the pharma industry, which has seen a reduction in R&D productivity in recent years.

In the short term, the 3D healthcare market will be driven by implants and prosthetics. Dental implants, for example, saw record revenues in 2014, generating $175.3m and dominating the market. Medium-term prospects for the industry are also good, with projections of $867m by 2025—$6bn if bioprinting becomes commercial in that time frame.

If it performs like the surgeries it enables, the 3D healthcare industry should have no problem delivering impressive results.

This article is published in collaboration with GE Look Ahead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Jennifer Silvi  writes for GE Look Ahead.

Image: A figurine is printed by Aurora’s 3D printer F1 during the 2014 Computex exhibition at the TWTC Nangang exhibition hall in Taipei.  REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

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