One of the most promising uses of 3D printing is in medicine. Medical 3D printers have been developed to print body parts to replace cartilage, skin and bones. Other body parts have also been successfully printed, like blood vessels, heart valves and liver cells.
The following 5 body parts can be 3D printed right now:
- Skin. Skin grafts are done for burn victims or for other injuries. Traditionally, skin grafts are layers of the skin taken from other parts of the body, like the buttocks or thighs. These are then applied to the raw areas which are affected by burns. The skin grafts serve as seeds where the skin can develop and help heal the burned parts of the body. 3D printed skin can help with this process, especially when there is a need for faster grafting onto the burned body parts. This is also very helpful when there are no large areas which can be used as a source for the skin grafts.
- Bone. Reconstructive surgery has always come short when it comes to bones. The replacement is usually a metal body part implanted to replace the bone. This is an expensive procedure. 3D printing of bones or bone fragments start with a bone graft. Current technology uses a two-step process, where a hard plastic-like material serves as the foundation and giving it shape. This is then grown in a gel ink media which holds the tissue cells in their proper place. Once in place, the natural bone accepts the implants and helps it further by cementing it in place.
- Blood vessels. Artificial blood vessels can be printed outside of the body. Technically, these are not blood vessels, but are plain hollow micro channels which are embedded within organs and allowing blood to flow through. The material used is a biodegradable plastic which contains the cells. It also has a water-based gel which helps the surrounding tissue to assimilate or grow into the implant.
- Heart valves. These are natural candidates considering that plastic body parts are expensive. In addition, artificial heart valves have been in development for several decades. One advantage of a 3D printed heart valve, that these are not rejected by the body. Being based on the person’s own cells, 3D printed heart valves can also be customized according to a person’s actual heart size. This creates a prosthetic heart, which looks and functions in the same way as the original heart.
- Ears. Ears and noses are made of cartilage. This is the same cartilage, which envelope joints and connect bones. Cartilage is a soft object with the consistency between rubbery muscle and soft bone. These were some of the earliest items which were output by 3D printing. Although ear replacement is less common than skin grafts, it has become more than just a proof of concept for 3D printing.
3D printing of body parts is already available. Analysts expect that 3D printed body parts will be worth roughly $4.04 billion by 2018. 3D printing is a cost-effective and fast way to create a replacement body part.