Innovative uses of additive manufacturing are dramatically altering the way doctors interact with the human body. This is part one of a two-part article, showcasing these new developments. Today we look at the human frame.
Sophisticated techniques for scanning and mapping the human body and its complex chemical and electrical activities now allow researchers and doctors to know more than ever before about how the body functions and also how to intervene when something goes wrong. Doctors and ordinary folks are now becoming engineers when they combine this knowledge with additive manufacturing and 3D printing to create an astonishing array of solutions for fixing whatever ails us. Let’s look at some of these amazing adaptations.
Bones, joints and the skeleton
There are more than 230 bones in the body and 360 joints. Through accident, disease or the ravages of time, these joints wear out and cause chronic pain and loss of movement. As a result, joint replacement surgery is one of the most common procedures in the world but it’s been largely available only in developed countries. Now with compact 3D printers combined with optical scanning, it’s possible to create new joints and sockets for hips, elbows, shoulders and feet which are fast, affordable, custom-made and ready on the spot rather than being shipped from abroad. The ones shown here are titanium, which is strong and biocompatible. In addition, the coarse surface texture – made easier with 3D metal printing – are ideal for creating porous surfaces into which new bone can grow over time.
This is not a bionic man but is a picture of a new sternum (breastplate) and ribs created from titanium to replace those lost to cancer – the first such large-scale procedure making use of additive manufacturing.
We’ve written before about partial skull replacements, but recently a surgeon in the Netherlands used 3D printing to create the entire cranial skull in two pieces, a perfect match for the patient’s facial and neck bones.
There are millions of people around the world who must do without a limb or two. History records the use of wooden peg legs and arms as far back as 400 BC, but no doubt the practice is even older. Articulated wooden limbs to replace those lost in war started to become more common at the end of the Civil War conflict in the United States, but they were still heavy, clumsy affairs and each had to be measured and fitted by a specialist craftsman – an expensive proposition for many.
Now accessible 3D printers can be used to make new limbs in lightweight plastic or even carbon fiber which are perfectly matched to suit their new owners, and which even have quite a bit of design flair. Impaired athletes are also using springy artificial legs to compete at the highest levels of track and field sports.
This articulated hand was created by a carpenter who lost his fingers in a woodworking accident. Not only did he design it himself and create activating motors, but he put the pattern onto Thingiverse to make it available to anyone else similarly in need. Both resourceful and benevolent.
Casts and medical aids
Unfortunately we are prone to fracture or crack our bones sometimes. What that happens, it’s traditional to use a plaster cast to hold the affected bone in place while it heals. But plaster casts are hot, heavy and itchy, not allowing the skin to breathe. This
3D printed solution was made by creating a scan of the patient’s arm along with a detailed X-ray. Not only is this cast lighter and stronger than plaster, but it can be tailored to provide added strength and support precisely at the point of the break where it is needed, while reducing weight and providing a degree of flexibility elsewhere.
Better than healing an injured limb is to prevent injury in the first place.That was the idea for the creation of an external joint aid, called the Exo-L. Developed by Delft University of Technology and the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, the device is custom 3D printed to match the wearer. It fits comfortably and is designed to prevent the ligament from twisting during sporting activities.
Tooth decay and tooth loss is as old as man himself. We dread to consider what early dentistry must have been like. Dentures and artificial teeth are now quite commonplace, and it’s even possible to 3D print teeth in high-tech materials like stainless steel or titanium. But here’s another future option. This tooth is made from ordinary dental resin that’s been impregnated with ammonium salts. The result is that it kills most disease-causing bacteria on contact. Even with dentures there is still the danger of gum and nerve disease but this innovation might make that a thing of the past, and it’s almost as strong as the real thing.
In part two, we’ll look at other medical miracles taking place involving tissue, organs and drug therapies. In the meantime, learn more about our 3D printing services in stainless steel, aluminum and titanium and see how we can help you make what was once impossible, possible.