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Senior Vice President, Head of Casualty Risk Engineering, International Property and Casualty, AXA XL

The skull: the guardian and cradle of our most precious human organ, the brain.

An average anatomy class of 100 students shares 5 skull models. Now 3D-printed skulls cost USD 20, and every student can take home his own skull for more thorough examination.

Hearing aid manufacturers are 3D printing their device shells, form-fitted for each patient, and doctors are using 3D scanners to custom-fit 3D-printed, flexible casts to help broken bones set and heal.

Surgeons have been using 3D scanners for at least two years to scan patient bones and organs. The scans are translated using imaging software into exact digital models, whose data points are sent to a 3D printer to produce a unique prototype of the individual organ, with colors to highlight the exact position of tumors and other anomalies.

Based on the 3D scans, implants are built to fit individual bones and organs. And because surgeons know so much more about what to expect before surgery, the dangerous exposure of delicate internal tissue is reduced, often by an hour or more, drastically increasing the chances of a fully successful surgery and recovery.

But 3D-printed organ and bone prototypes are only the beginning.


                                                                                 Source: NC State University

3D Printing and Medical Nanodevices

In June of this year, researchers from Harvard and the University of Illinois 3D-printed a battery thinner than a human hair, a breakthrough for nanotechnology. 3D-printed nanobatteries will finally provide the energy component for nanodevices, like the microscopic robot Dr. Bradley Nelson, Professor of Robotics and Intelligence at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, is developing. It will be injected through the eye, and be capable of delivering medical treatment to individual body cells.

The Portal Opens to a World of 3D-Printed Healing

We read daily news flashes about new and improved methods for 3D printing dental and bodily implants, organs, cartilage, bones, skin, and even stem cells. It’s happening all over the world.

Many hip implants have already been printed; vertebrae, cranial and facial bones, and heart valves are next.

Scientists can already print actual bone and heart tissue into a biodegradable scaffold, which holds the shape and size of the organ or bone to be replaced. After transplant, the living cells take over and the scaffold is absorbed harmlessly into the body.

Now they are replacing the scaffold method with bio-ink (living cells contained in a cohesive hydrogel solution), permitting multiple cell types to be merged into the same “print order” to make heterogeneous organ tissue. The result will be a complete, functional organ of living tissue.

Paging Dr. Frankenstein

Before 3D printing, skin was excised from a perfectly healthy part of the body—creating a new scar—to be grafted onto a damaged area.

Biomedical engineering graduates at the University of Toronto have created “biologically compatible” polymers infused with real body cells, like skin cells. Using this method, they can print sheets of skin, collect them on a roll, and then layer them—just like real skin—to cover injured areas.

The Dutch firm SkinPrint just won first prize at the Phillips Innovation Awards in July of this year. They take a single adult patient’s hair, extract cells, and reprogram the genes to create induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). Those act as embryonic stem cells, but solve the moral dilemma of stem-cell harvesting. Why are stem cells so important? Because they are unspecialized cells which can grow into different types of tissues and organs. SkinPrint then uses the stem cells as ink for the 3D printer, which then prints skin identical to the patient’s own skin, to be used for skin transplants. 

The Zurich Children’s Hospital in Switzerland is developing another method of 3D printing skin based on the patient’s own skin cells. In July of this year, scientists at Wake Forest University went even further, successfully printing skin directly onto real burn wounds. Within five years, SkinPrint believes that hospitals everywhere could be printing real skin for burn victims, soldiers, and other patients with severe skin injuries.

In 1954 the first kidney was transplanted. Only six decades later, we are on the verge of 3D-printed organs based on living cells from the patient. Such organs will be perfectly matched and perfectly fitted to each patient through 3D scans. And they will solve problems of animal-testing, donor shortage, immune suppression, disease contamination, organ rejection, and material toxicity.

If the technology continues to evolve at this pace body parts based on patient cells could become the standard in our lifetimes. Prostheses will look real, because they will be real, and 10 million or more amputees worldwide will be whole again.

Could we print a new heart in time to bring someone back to life?

Distant Horizon? The Bionic Man and the Fountain of Youth

Scientists and society will eventually want to reach beyond perfect organic matches for skin, bones, and organs. Why remain within strictly natural boundaries, when 3D-printed enhancement could create a new breed: the superhuman?

Already certain prosthetic legs have been cited as performance enhancers. 3D-printed prostheses could look like human parts, and be made of human cells, but be structured to function above natural human capacity.

Combining genetic sequencing insights and 3D printing could one day enable scientists to produce genetically modified cells of every kind. Cancer cells could be replaced by printed healthy cells.  Replacement breasts could be printed directly onto cancer victims.

One day we could inject cells or apply rolls of 3D-printed UV- and melanoma-resistant skin. Glamour girls could go to cosmetic surgeons for really luminous skin, skin that literally emits a subtle glow, or that sparkles like the Twilight vampire skin.

MIT researchers are already developing 3D-printed body armor based on the impenetrable scales of a fish species that has survived for 96 million years. One day, bionic military personnel might even get bullet-proof skin printed onto their entire epidermal surface. Or soldiers, policemen, and humanitarian workers could carry portable 3D printers with them, programmed to print skin, bone, and body tissue directly onto a wound or break.

What if scientists could print eyes that can see in the dark? Instead of laser surgery for myopic correction, we could apply for printed eye replacements or night-vision upgrades. Printed hair cells could be produced with the color and consistency of your choice. The cure for baldness, at last!

Printed superorgans could replace old organs; old cells and mitochondria could be replaced by printed, youthful versions, retarding or halting the aging process.

Could the fountain of youth become a 21st century reality?

Training, Safety, Side Benefits

Digital blueprints are likely to flood the underworld. Charlatans will certainly be able set up shop faster than ever, offering cheaply printed organs, bones, skin, and blood, using inferior materials and crude surgical methods.

As with all new technologies, considering the incredible tempo of breakthroughs using many different methods, machines, and materials, the medical network is likely to be fraught with confusion for several years. Best practices and methodologies must be established, and doctors, nurses, and staff trained to use the technology safely. Insurance will also need to evolve rapidly.

But the miracle is at hand: doctors and scientists are about to use 3D printing to make broken bodies whole in a way only sci-fi writers could have imagined even five years ago. And one day it could even help us to slow or stop the aging process. What would happen then?

Markus Kälin, PhD, is Senior Vice President and XL Group’s Head of Casualty Risk Engineering for International Property and Casualty. Dr. Kälin offers risk expertise in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and medical equipment.

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