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Resident Kerri Vincenti shares how 3D printing can be used in medicine.


Advances in Medicine

One in 10 people on a transplant list will die before they ever have the chance to get a transplant. This translates to approximately 22 deaths each day, or almost 8,000 people each year. In order to survive, these patients rely a system that must match them with another person who has lost his or her life based on a variety of factors beyond just which organ is needed and the patients’ blood type. But what if there was a way to eliminate the need for someone else to die in order for those patients’ lives to be saved? With the power of 3D printing, that dream may soon become a reality. 

3D printing is a technique in which a design is input into a computer, which then directs the creation of a three-dimensional object, an exact replica of the input design. The process is additive in nature so complex parts can be created using multiple layers of material, but at a fraction of the cost what it would take to sculpt, build and/or mold if done using a traditional production process.  This process has already been useful in the medical field for a variety of purposes. 

For example, 3D printing assists manufacturers in creating customizable prostheses for patients. Prior to 3D printing, a mold for a prosthesis was very expensive because it was custom fit for an individual patient, and any change to the original mold would essentially render it useless. Now, prostheses can be quickly and easily manufactured with the input of just a few measurements and the touch of a button.  Another example, which I have personally seen, is the use of 3D printers to aid in both education and surgical planning. Computer systems can take the input from a patient’s CT scan and translate that into physical models, which can be used to understand tumor burden and extent as well as to aid surgeons in deciding how they will approach resection while avoiding key structures. 

But the medical potential of 3D printing doesn’t stop there. 3D printers can be used to manufacture essentially any object so long as the input materials are available. Because of this, perhaps most exciting use of 3D technology is the opportunity to create actual organs, which can be transplanted directly into patients. In fact, this “dream” is already a reality as the largest organ in the body – the skin – is being created by 3D printers to aid in the treatment of burn victims. Other body parts have also successfully been created including ear cartilage, blood vessels, heart valves, intervertebral discs and bones.  

Studies are currently underway to assess the feasibility of using 3D printing to create solid organs such as the liver and kidneys using a patient’s own cells.  Such an advance would dramatically change the lives of those requiring transplants. Not to mention it could potentially cut down on the subsequent personal and healthcare costs related to possible rejections. There is still a lot of research that needs to be done, but 3D printing is an exciting technology that has the potential to help so many people, likely in ways we haven’t even thought of yet. 

American Resident Project fellows receive compensation from Anthem for sharing their perspectives on this blog. Fellows views are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Anthem, Inc.