3D printing may one day make aspects of medicine a bit like car making, where custom-made parts to be used in surgery are received “just in time”.
3D Medical chairman Dr Nigel Finch says 3D printing could eliminate the need for hospitals to carry large and expensive supplies of surgical implants.
Instead, parts could be 3D-printed just weeks before they are required.
3D Medical recently developed a 3D-printable and customised plastic and titanium jaw joint that was used to correct a rare jaw deformity in a 32-year-old male patient at Melbourne’s Epworth-Freemasons Hospital.
The 3D-printed corrective implant was made to perfectly fit the patient’s mandible.
Weight-bearing joints for the knees, hips and shoulders could be similarly 3D-printed.
Dr Finch says 3D printing could generate significant savings for hospitals and the health sector, and provide bespoke solutions for patients.
“Using the just-in-time production model sounds a little bit crass when you talk about people (patients), but I think that the manufacturing philosphy is precisely what we’re looking at, Dr Finch told AAP.
Hospitals could place an order for a 3D-printed part as they prepared their surgical schedules.
“That’s the goal that we’d like to get to: help the hospital system not carry inventory on their balance sheet. It frees up more capital to do more meaningful things,” Dr Finch said.
Using custom-made implants would also make operating theatres more efficient, reducing surgery time.
Surgeons would no longer have to use ill-fitting parts that came only in the sizes of small, medium and large, thereby reducing the need for surgeons to alter a patient’s body – such as cutting away bone – so that the part will fit.
Patient trauma, recovery time and physiotherapy needs would be reduced.
Dr Finch said 3D-printing was not only producing medical parts made of plastic and titanium. Small amounts of human tissue and organs have been printed.
A US company, Organovo, has been able to 3D print a very small amount of liver tissue, which it sells to pharmaceutical companies to use in ascertaining the toxicity of early-stage drugs.
A form of skin had also been 3D-printed but the printing so far had not been able to replicate the network of blood vessels and nerves that make skin living tissue.
“It may not be that long before they work out how to do the plumbing (blood vessels) and the feeling (nerves) and when we’ve got that, we can print a whole body,” Dr Finch said.
Dr Finch said 3D Medical is currently considering a few materials that might be suitable in the printing of a substitute for bone that could be used in the repair of major bone breaks.
3D printing can also be employed to produce accurate anatomical models for use in surgical planning.
A surgical team can test their procedure and equipment on the model, making them better prepared for the real thing.
Surgery time could be cut dramatically.
3D printing may also be employed in the treatment of cancer.
3D Medical and Australia’s largest private provider of radiation therapy, Genesis Cancer Care, are considering 3D printing for the manufacture of patient-specific electron beam shields.
The shield helps the radiotherapist target the area of interest and protect the areas that are unaffected by the cancer.
“These have to be made with some precision, and 3D printing of electron beam shields is probably the next thing in our R&D (research and development) pipeline,” Dr Finch said.