It sounds far-fetched, but in some ways this future is already here. Doctors use 3-D-printed models of organs and tumors regularly to educate patients and plan surgeries.
Some printed body parts have even made their way into human bodies as dental implants, prosthetics, skull and facial reconstructions, and more.
Researchers are also working to print out cells, blood vessels and other living tissues, and experimental studies have created, among other parts, knee cartilage, bones and an artificial ear.
“I really think the 3-D jet printer is transformative,” says Daniel Jones, chief of minimally invasive surgical services at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “It’s going to change the way doctors talk to patients, how they plan surgeries and how they do surgeries. The sky is the limit in terms of applications.”
Around since the 1980s and now available in basic versions for just hundreds of dollars at office supply stores, 3-D printers work by creating layers of material in skinny slices that stack up to create a three-dimensional shape. The technology has been used to manufacture eyeglasses, car parts, jewelry and more.
Medical applications are also wide-ranging.
All it takes is an MRI or CT scan or other image to create a three-dimensional blueprint for creating objects of any shape. Colors can be altered to make visualizing easier. Depending on the design and complexity of the machine, objects can be made with a variety of materials, including plastics, metal and rubber.
In cardiology, 3-D models are, for now, proving most useful as educational tools. Like fingerprints, every person’s heart is unique, and every heart problem plays out in its own way, says Paul Iaizzo, associate director of the Institute for Engineering in Medicine at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. With help from detailed replicas, surgeons can plan more accurately and reduce procedure times.
Someday, surgeons may even be able to print customized patches for repairing hearts damaged by heart attacks, says Adam Feinberg, a biomedical engineer at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
His team is working both to grow heart tissue in petri dishes and to use 3-D printers to create soft, living structures by embedding cells inside gels that can be laid down in precise layers.
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