Med-Tech Innovation looks at the innovators who are looking for new ways to save lives with 3D printing.
1 – 3D printed blood vessels
A group of researchers from the University of California San Diego (UCSD) have cracked the 3D printing of whole blood vessel networks. The artificial networks are functional and were even introduced into living subjects.
But this is not your standard 3D printing method. The process makes use of a series of mirrors and UV light. A UV pattern of the cell network to be printed is then shone onto a solution of living cells and light-sensitive polymers. The structure then solidifies under the light.
The 3D polymer frame allows the living cells to grow naturally around it.
“We can directly print detailed microvasculature structures in extremely high resolution. Other 3D printing technologies produce the equivalent of ‘pixelated’ structures in comparison and usually require sacrificial materials and additional steps to create the vessels,” said Wei Zhu, a postdoctoral scholar in the lab and a lead researcher on the project.
The research is part of a focus on developing lifelike tissues and organs with a functioning vasculature — networks of blood vessels that can transport blood, nutrients, waste and other biological materials — and do so safely when implanted inside the body.
2 – The Waterscope
Admittedly not a medical device, Waterscope nevertheless has the potential to save lives, particularly in developing countries.
Developed by members of Cambridge University’s Department of Physics, the tool provides water quality testing at relatively low cost and with much greater ease of use in remote areas.
The standard test for water is to incubate it and check for the development of bacteria. The process is speeded up considerably with observation through a microscope. Waterscope uses a 3D-printable microscope linked to a Raspberry Pi.
3 – Heart valves
The Georgia Institute of Technology and the Piedmont Heart Institute in Atlanta announced a collaboration to develop 3D printed heart valves to help surgeons in planning their procedures.
When replacement valves don’t fit properly in heart surgery, the outcome can be fatal. 3D printing allows the surgeon to test it for fit, as well as function.
4 – Brain surgery
This is another example of 3D printing being used to plan a delicate procedure. Surgeons in New York preparing to perform surgery on a patient to correct an aneurysm inside her head.
The standard procedure involves implanting a metallic basket to strengthen the artery wall. However, the BBC reported that this wasn’t possible in this case, as the patient’s blood vessels were severely twisted.
The team 3D printed a replica of human tissue using a polymer that mimics the characteristics. This gave the surgeons a chance to practice the procedure and find out which tools and methods would work best.
One of the surgeons reported that the patient had ‘done great’ during the operation.
5 – Kidney transplant
Four-year-old Lucy Boucher hit the headlines earlier this year when she donated her ‘kidney’ to the Science Museum. The 3D printed model replica of her actual kidney (and another of her abdomen) were produced in advance of the life-saving surgery.
Lucy’s father Chris donated his kidney for the procedure. Surgeons at Guy’s Hospital used 3D printing to help accurately plan the surgery and reduce the potential risks.
They printed models of Lucy’s ten kilogram abdomen and Chris’ kidney, allowing them to anticipate any issues with the surgery.
Chris said of the hi-tech procedure: “Lucy is thriving – the kidney is working well in her, she’s grown a lot, her appetite is excellent, she’s now at nursery and enjoying ballet classes. Being part of the exhibition is a great testament to what a lot of medics in the NHS are doing and how by being determined, innovative and forward thinking they are making healthcare the best it can be.”