3D printed biomedicine: a model of personalised healthcare
As biomedical technology advances, and as the barriers between private and public health provision dissolve, healthcare is increasingly moving towards a more personalised model.
The one-size-fits-all approach of the past — exemplified, perhaps, in the old-fashioned NHS prescription glasses once available — is no longer relevant.
Now, truly individual public health solutions are beginning to develop. The best example of this is perhaps the biomedical applications of 3D printing.
You’ll probably have already heard of 3D printing. It’s making major waves in the consumer design world, allowing people to design and ‘print’ a massive variety of objects from their own homes. If you aren’t familiar with how they work, 3D printers use a filament — usually a recyclable plastic — which is melted and then layered thinly to additively construct a 3D object based on a digital blueprint.
When it comes to biomedical applications, things get slightly more complicated. The main advantage of 3D printing is that it allows you to design replacement ‘parts’ that fit a patient’s exact specifications. For example, one patient developed a condition which caused a thickening of the top of her skull. This resulted in some severe symptoms, including loss of vision and motor coordination.
Traditionally, partial skull implants were made of cement — however, these are often not a good fit due to the difficulty of getting them to fit precisely. What the team at UMC Utrecht were able to do, thanks to 3D printing, is design a precise schematic of the plastic implant to fit the contours of the patient’s skull perfectly. "This has major advantages, not only cosmetically but also because patients often have better brain function compared with the old method," says Dr. Bon Verweij, the physician in charge of the procedure. The patient has reportedly regained her vision and all other lost brain functions, with there being almost no signs indicating she ever had surgery. This success has been replicated in other biomedical solutions, such as prosthetic limbs.
So, what are the immediate implications of 3D printed biotechnology? Well, firstly, the cost. The ease-of-use of 3D printing, combined with its small-scale decentralised production capabilities and cheap print materials, means that printed prosthetics and the like are much, much cheaper than traditional solutions (the prosthetic limb mentioned in the article above cost only £60 to produce). This in itself takes a major burden off of public health, at a time when resources are more squeezed than ever before.
More importantly, though, this technology highlights an increasingly individualised — even bespoke — approach to care. 3D printing isn’t just limited to prosthetics, but it also has an array of surgical applications too. This is truly empowering doctors to adapt their approaches to each individual patient, more than ever before.
The end of hospitals?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of 3D printing, though, is its potential for decentralised production. As the technology becomes cheaper and cheaper, and more available on a mass scale, the need for large, centralised provision centres decreases. 3D printing could therefore seriously streamline the infrastructure of public health, making it vastly more efficient in the not-too-distant future.
Photos by Andreas Kofner