…Until fairly recently, most 3-D-printed medical devices were aimed at shoring up the human body from the outside, but, increasingly, they are being slipped into us as well. 3D Systems supplies its printing technology to a company called Conformis, which prints more than a thousand customized knee implants a year. (Although the market for customized knee implants is surging, the jury is still out on whether they provide a better outcome than generic implants do.) Earlier this year, surgeons in Wales used a 3-D printer to reconstruct the facial bones of a twenty-nine-year-old man named Stephen Power, who fractured his left cheekbone, eye sockets, upper jaw, and skull in a motorcycle accident. The medical team scanned Power’s skull and, based on the unbroken bones, determined what his full facial structure should be. They then printed a replica in titanium and successfully implanted it.
Recently, I spoke with Dr. Oren Tepper, the director of craniofacial surgery at Montefiore Medical Center, in the Bronx, who has found an innovative use for 3-D printing in his practice. In 2012, he was presented with an infant girl named Jayla, who had been born with only a rudimentary jaw. The condition made it difficult for her to breathe; the next step would have been to give her a tracheostomy. The usual solution, a full jaw reconstruction, would have required numerous, risky bone-graft surgeries and can’t be performed until a child is older.
Instead, Tepper made a full CT scan of Jayla’s head, and from that information arranged to have 3-D-printed a detailed plastic model of her ideal jaw. The model wouldn’t replace her existing jaw; rather, Tepper would transform her existing jaw into one very similar in shape to the model. Tepper then had printed something akin to a three-dimensional stencil that fit exactly around the lower part of her face; it had slits and holes in it to indicate where he could drill without damaging her facial nerves. Finally, he attached a ratchet to her jaw; each day, he tugged her jaw forward by a millimetre, allowing her bone cells to grow and fill in the stretched region. When the whole process was complete, many weeks later, Jayla had a normal-sized jaw. Tepper now treats two or three children with similar malformations each year.
“I’m from the younger generation, comfortable with new technology,” he told me. “You could try to do such a complex surgery without virtual modelling, and without 3-D printing. But it would be much more challenging, much more risky, with much more opportunity to fail.”
The biggest leap for medical 3-D printing lies ahead. For years, researchers have dreamed of engineering kidneys, livers, and other organs and tissues in the lab, so that a patient who needs a transplant doesn’t have to search for a donor. But growing usable tissue in the lab is notoriously difficult; the advent of 3-D printers that can print ink made of cells has offered a ray of hope. In the early nineteen-nineties, Anthony Atala, the director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, began growing human bladder cells on biodegradable scaffolds in his lab. The cells formed a kind of pouch, which he successfully implanted around the bladders of seven children with poor bladder function, relieving their condition. That achievement was soon followed by a cascade of announcements declaring victory in the race to create a true human organ. Most of these projects involved growing tracheal cells or cardiac cells or kidney cells on polymer scaffolds, often produced with 3-D printers, but none have succeeded in growing into full-fledged organs. As scientists make more concerted efforts to grow organs in the lab, the question is no longer whether they will succeed but how….
Every Thursday is #3dthursday here at Adafruit! The DIY 3D printing community has passion and dedication for making solid objects from digital models. Recently, we have noticed electronics projects integrated with 3D printed enclosures, brackets, and sculptures, so each Thursday we celebrate and highlight these bold pioneers!
Have you considered building a 3D project around an Arduino or other microcontroller? How about printing a bracket to mount your Raspberry Pi to the back of your HD monitor? And don’t forget the countless LED projects that are possible when you are modeling your projects in 3D!
The Adafruit Learning System has dozens of great tools to get you well on your way to creating incredible works of engineering, interactive art, and design with your 3D printer! We also offer the LulzBot TAZ – Open source 3D Printer and the Printrbot Simple Metal 3D Printer in our store. If you’ve made a cool project that combines 3D printing and electronics, be sure to let us know, and we’ll feature it here!