Body Parts on Demand: Will 3D printing spark the next revolution in BoP health care? (Bi-Weekly Checkup, 6/22/13)
Six-week old Kaiba Gionfriddo was in a restaurant with his family when he started turning blue.
He was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with severe tracheobronchomalacia, a rare condition in which a collapsed airway blocks the flow of air to the lungs – in his case due to a previously undetected birth defect. He began to require daily resuscitation, and by the time he was two months old, he had been put on a ventilator. Doctors doubted he’d survive.
Desperate for a solution, Kaiba’s doctors referred him to the University of Michigan Health System, where a remarkable new technology was under development.
What happened next would make headlines around the world.
Working with the university’s College of Engineering, the U of M medical team created a custom-designed splint that could be sewn around Kaiba’s airway. Not only would the splint expand the airway and allow him to breathe, it would give it a skeleton to support its proper growth. The splint was created using a CT scan of Kaiba’s trachea/bronchus, which was used to create a computer model of the structure – impressive technologies, but certainly not front-page news.
The breakthrough came when the splint was produced – with a 3D printer.
Already used to make everything from guitars to custom-designed bikinis, 3D printers work kind of like inkjet printers. But instead of laying down drops of ink, they deposit layers of material – which can include anything from plastic and metal to edible synthetic meat. The devices start with a three-dimensional digital model, which they divide into super-thin (0.1 millimeters or less) digital cross-sections. Then the printer deposits material layer by layer onto a platform in the shape of these cross-sections. The different layers are automatically fused to create a single three-dimensional object.
Kaiba’s airway splint was printed with layers of a biocompatible plastic called polycaprolactone – the same substance used for dissolvable sutures. In a few years, the splint will be absorbed by his body, by which time his bronchus should be strong enough to function normally.
Three-dimensional printing technology opens up a vast array of possible medical uses. The applications already in development almost seem like science fiction:
· Prosthetics and bone replacements that precisely match a person’s anatomy
· An actual bioengineered ear made of living cells
· A heart patch made of human stem cells – essentially a living bandage
· Human liver tissue that’s capable of performing functions of a real liver
Much of the conversation about innovation in BoP health care involves the “data revolution,” and the potential of reaching patients through expanded access to mobile networks. We’ve recently covered some data-centric innovations, from new ways to record and transmit patient information (like the Smart Cards used in India’s RSBY health insurance scheme) to software that tracks medication and equipment stock (like what Swasth Health Centers uses to optimize its logistics chain efficiency).
But technologies like 3D printing could spark a parallel revolution, as companies and countries acquire the ability to produce advanced devices on-site. Combined with mobile Internet access, 3D printers could enable emerging countries to create a new manufacturing model that doesn’t depend on the support of a highly developed human and physical infrastructure. The result could be a new generation of local products designed specifically for local needs – with repercussions that reshape health care and other fields.
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