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Over the past half-decade, 3D printing technology has sprung to the forefront as a solution to advance highly contested areas of medical science. From revolutionising the world of prescriptions by patenting a new system of printing drugs, to improving the success rates in performing even the most difficult surgeries, and helping to identify critical misdiagnoses, we take a closer look at three ways 3D printing is helping to save millions of pounds, and will help to save millions of lives.

‘Chemputers’ for pharmaceutical printing

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In 2012, Professor Lee Cronin developed his efforts in generating “evolutionary algorithms” to artificially create life, and re-purposed his ideas for a new project: the notion of creating downloadable chemistry, with the aim of allowing patients to download and 3D print their own pharmaceuticals at home. In 2013, Cronin’s investigations were the centrepiece of a TED talk, where he described a prototype of 3D printer capable of assembling compounds on a molecular level. The process was to be not too different from the majority of 3D printers around today, except for on a much smaller level. It would allow a user to visit an online drugstore with a digital prescription, buy the “blueprint”, and “chemical ink” required, and then print the medicine at home with software and 3D molecular printer – or Chemputer.

This 3D printing phenomenon presents many worries surrounding potential substance control laws, and recreational drug engineering (think Breaking Bad but all from a Mac), but it also bridges the gap between chemist and consumer, allowing drugs to be tailor-made to the specific needs of the individual. According to Cronin’s rough predictions, our current model for medicine distribution could be flattened within the next decade.

Mending hearts by printing 3D replicas

Last year, a series of little lives were saved by surgeons who credited 3D printing for successfully performing complicated heart surgery: a hospital in Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York City 3D printed a copy of a 2 week old baby’s heart, which had a highly unusual structure and was riddled with holes.

Rather than approaching the surgery as a dangerous dip into the unknown, having to “stop the heart and decide what to do”, the surgeons, lead by Dr Emile Bacha, had the opportunity to study the organ prior to the operation, allowing them to develop a detailed strategy beforehand so that “it was like having a road map to guide us”. They were then able to repair the baby’s heart with one procedure.

Kentucky surgeon Erle Austin described utilising 3D printing in the same way at the 2014 Maker Faire in Rome, claiming that printing organs in 3D as preparation will improve, and is currently improving the odds of success and survival rates in unusual or challenging surgical procedures, helping us to understand a complicated heart, brain or other organ.

3D printing helped a man to identify his wife’s brain tumour misdiagnosis, saving her eyesight

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When Psychotherapist Pamela Shavaun Scott was diagnosed with a brain tumour behind her left eye, doctors reassured both her and her husband Michael Balzer that there was no cause for concern – and that she was to simply have a follow-up MRI scan the following year. Still suffering headaches and with her vision becoming increasingly affected by the 3 centimetre mass behind her eye, Scott and Balzer were not prepared to wait that long. Balzer, specialising in 3D graphics, used his professional skillset to begin building up an accurate, 3 dimensional picture of his wife’s skull and tumour based on multiple x-rays and scans.

When the radiologist next x-rayed the mass, the tumour appeared to have grown, but when cross-referencing it with Balzer’s 3D representation, it was clear that the tumour had simply been measured at a different angle, and the initial diagonses had been incorrect.

Surgeons 3D printed Balzer’s model into a physical object, which they could use to determine an otherwise unclear and unconventional way of removing the tumour. Rather than invasively sawing through the skull to reach the mass, which involves a high risk of eyesight loss, neurosurgeons instead reached the brain through the eye socket, using the 3D model to help plan the procedure, and the tumour was removed in May 2014. Following the operation, it was identified that the cancer had begun to wrap itself around the optic nerve, and that had Scott’s tumour gone untreated, she may have been blind within six months.

The future of 3D medicine

With 3D bio-printing having garnered such breakthrough and success, we can expect growth in the burgeoning 3D printer market over the next decade. According to The Guardian, dental and medical applications could be worth US $ 6 million by 2025. The advent of life-saving heart procedures enabled by 3D printing; the possibility of a world in which pharmaceutical combinations can be created digitally so that we are taking one tablet, instead of twenty; higher success, and lower misdiagnoses rates; printable body parts, and medical implants – all make a future world of 3D printing an exciting world for humans, full of possibilities.

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