How is 3D Printing Innovating Medical Research in 2020?

3D printing technologies are pushing the boundaries of what was once considered only possible in science fiction novels. The advances being made by engineers from around the world are contributing to a plethora of innovations that are having a major impact on conventional medical practice. Medical researchers have been able to develop solutions in the form of patient-specific prostheses and pre-operative models, tailored, corrective insoles and orthotics, new medical devices and instruments, and 3D bioprinting and tissue engineering. In this article, we will provide a brief review of some of the latest 3D printing technologies and methods that are inspiring medical research.

planning, prostheses, and implants

The rapid prototyping capability of 3D printing is offering the medical community a fast and cost-effective way of delivering life-altering medical interventions and solutions to patients. For individuals that require a prosthesis or implants such as a bionic hand or leg bone, 3D printing is providing a functional and affordable way to generate patient-tailored parts. The technology offers complete design freedom and rapid turn-around times. 

Using high-resolution images, 3D printing is able to generate accurate models of human anatomy. Image data can be exported as a common medical file format, DICOM (digital imaging and communication in medicine), which can then be converted into a stereolithography format (STL) file. From this file, a 3D virtual model can be created. For orthopedic surgery, implants can be made from these models to replace fractured bones. Further, virtual or physical models can be used by surgeons in pre-operative planning and for teaching patients, alleviating their stress and anxiety by explaining what a procedure would entail.

Biological tissue

In early June of this year, scientists from the University of Colorado (UC) Denver and the University of Science and Technology in China were the first to use new material to 3D print structures that could mimic cartilage. Cartilage replacement has been a notoriously difficult hurdle to cross for scientists and healthcare professionals until now. UC Denver’s mechanical engineer, professor Chris Yakacki, led the team of researchers in using a 3D printing process called digital light processing (DLP) to create a liquid crystal resin-like substance. When exposed to UV-light the researchers observed that the substance cured and formed new bonds in several thin photopolymer layers. The final cured form constituted a strong, yet soft, and compliant elastomer. when printed as a latticed, honeycomb structure, that’s when Yakacki and his team saw that it began to resemble cartilage. Their research findings were published in the journal Advanced Materials .

In addition to utilizing this breakthrough material for cartilage replacement, Yakacki also believes there is...