Imagine suffering a devastating back injury and facing a lifetime of reduced mobility. Now, researchers at the University of Minnesota are developing an exciting potential treatment. They’re taking the concept of 3-D printing in healthcare to new levels with an implantable device impregnated with neuronal stem cells.
Made of silicone, the cellular matrix would be implanted into an injury area, acting as a bridge between living nerve cells. According to a study in Advanced Functional Materials, the device could become the basis for a new approach to treating spinal cord injury and could one day help reduce pain in patients while restoring some function.
Printed Teeth, Pills and Tissue
3D printing began about 40 years ago but has only recently come into its own, accelerating the development of healthcare technology, rapid prototyping and many other fields. In 2015, researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands created 3-D–printed teeth made of antimicrobial plastic; tests found that the plastic killed over 99 percent of the bacteria that causes tooth decay, according to New Scientist. In a study published by the European Journal of Trauma and Emergency Surgery, another group of Dutch researchers found that their 3-D–printing process for artificial cadavers “results in accurate models suitable for preoperative workup.”
In 2017, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed 3-D–printed microparticles that can release multiple vaccine drugs over an extended period of time with just a single injection. That could mean a lot for vaccine efficiency and disease eradication. Meanwhile, 3-D printing techniques promise better artificial organs — companies like San Diego-based Organovo are developing bioprinted liver tissue, which could first be used as a means to check the safety of drugs.
But 3-D printing in healthcare isn’t just experimental — it’s already benefiting many patients. In 2016, Aprecia Pharmaceuticals began shipping the first 3-D–printed drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Spritam (levetiracetam), which is designed to treat epilepsy. The company’s ZipDose technology creates superporous printed pills that are formed from multiple layers of powder bound together with an aqueous fluid. That gives them the ability to dissolve instantly when they come into contact with a liquid, making them easier to ingest, said ComputerWorld.
Reaping the Benefits
Developing drugs without animal testing is just one example of how massive savings in time and money could result from 3-D printing in healthcare. Another is prosthetics. A South African initiative called Robohand used 3-D printing methods to produce artificial limbs for as little as $500 to $2,000, far below the $10,000-plus cost of conventional healthcare technology for prosthetics. In fact, basic bioprinters that can print cells can be had for as little as $10,000 — compare that to the cost of a kidney transplant at approximately $300,000.
But perhaps the most revolutionary potential of 3-D printing in healthcare is the ability to democratize drug manufacturing. Leroy Cronin, a chemist at the University of Glasgow, worked with colleagues to produce 3-D–printed chemical reaction vessels that can convert simple starting compounds into a muscle relaxant called baclofen, which is used to treat muscle spasms, reported Science. The technology could be used to produce medicines that are not commercially viable or as a dispensary in remote locations. It also paves the way for patients to one day print their own medicines at home; doctors in the future might give out algorithms instead of prescriptions for drugs, said the Washington Post.
From nerve implants to home pharmacies, 3-D printing technologies hold a lot of promise for healthcare. And we’re just at the beginning of this revolution.
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