How 3D Printing is Personalizing Surgery

In a recent article, I discussed a major innovation in 3D printing and medicine: the ability for doctors to print patient-specific anatomical models derived from actual patient imaging. In the past, doctors had to rely solely on 2-dimensional MRI or CT scans to prepare for surgery. If a 3D simulation was deemed necessary to practice for a surgical procedure, they used generic wax molds or cadavers.Today, using medical imaging data and a 3D Computer-Aided Design (CAD) model, an exact 3D printed model of a patient’s face or hand, for example, can be created, permitting the surgeon to fine-tune a procedure before performing the surgery.

However, this is just one small part of the ongoing revolution in the personalization of surgical procedures made possible by 3D printing. Over the last decade, 3D printing has begun to enable personalized surgery in a number of critical ways: the aforementioned 3D models for surgical planning; patient-specific body implants; and customized surgical instruments.

A few years ago, it was only possible to create a 3D printed patient-specific implants from ceramics for bone defects.Custom-printed metal implants – preferable owing to their durability and longevity – were out of reach. Today, using 3D metal printing, titanium alloys, cobalt-based alloys, tantalum and other special alloys can be utilized for knee or hip arthroplasty, creating completely customized prosthetics. This is not science fiction. Singapore-based Supercraft3D has already started working with National University Hospital in Singapore in “designing state of the art implants that [will] make the entire surgical procedure a ‘snap-fit’ exercise.”

And it’s not just patient-specific implants that can be constructed. The instruments themselves – from surgical planning tools to custom surgical devices – can be made, according to each patient’s anatomy or each doctor’s special needs. The medical industry has always needed affordable, reliable instruments, but was challenged by the fact that no two patients are identical and treatment needs vary. By enabling the creation of customized instruments, 3D printing facilitates a far more personalized surgical process.

What about the future? The next-generation of additive manufacturing and medicine will likely involve the use of advanced compositions and the gradation of different materials to optimize functionality.

We’re also on the cusp of using bioprinting to produce artificial organs on demand. Over 113,000 people are presently on transplant waiting lists in the US alone, and even those who receive organs require treatment with immunosuppressants and face possible organ rejection. While we are still a few years away from a practical application of this technology, in the near future, the need for live organ transplants will certainly be replaced by bioprinted organs produced from a patient’s own cells.

Although still in the early stages, bioprinting has already demonstrated the potential to change medicine as we know it. Along with3D printed models, and customized surgical tools, future surgery will involve a level of personalization unheard of just a few years ago.

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