3-D Printing: Endless Possibilities for the Life Sciences

Although the technology has been around for decades, 3-D printing has in recent years gone mainstream––and all the possibilities it represents has the world at fever pitch. Seeming like something straight out of science fiction, 3D printing—aka “additive manufacturing”—converts a digital file into a three-dimensional structure by laying down layer after layer of thin material such as resin or plastic, which is often cured with ultraviolet light.

The technology has too many applications to count – it’s already being used in industries such as construction, automotive, architecture, dental fabrication, art, chemistry, aviation, fashion, and even firearms.

But it’s not just a cool technology – it’s one that could change everyday lives.

Amazingly, there are 3-D printed medical devices, diagnostics, surgical tools, and prosthetics being developed in labs and clinics around the world. Surgeons are using 3-D printed models to plan complicated surgeries, such as this one to separate conjoined twin baby girls or this one to practice brain surgery on 3-D printed blood vessels. Research is being conducted on the 3-D bioprinting of human organs and tissues to give people who need transplants a new lease on life, potentially solving a global shortage of organ donors. Furthermore, these organs and cells could provide pharmaceutical companies with structures on which to test new drugs. And 3-D printing may soon render cadavers obsolete in anatomy training for medical students.

While many regulatory issues need to be addressed as the technology’s use widens, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has largely been a proponent of 3-D printing. The agency approved the first 3-D printed prosthetic and more recently, the first 3-D printed drug. The pill is a new version of a seizure medication that has been on the market for years, but the 3-D printing allows it to dissolve more readily, making it easier to swallow. As one of the newest innovative ways to deliver drugs, 3-D printing is being investigated as a solution to customize drug dosage, a feat that is becoming increasingly important in this era of personalized medicine.

To witness the technology in action, we spent some time with VisMed-3D, a 3-D biodesign and consulting firm. They develop 3-D surgical patient replicas for healthcare and academic institutions to utilize visualization and 3-D printing technology for state-of-the-art treatment and training. They also use these same technological approaches to make prosthetics and medical devices. Just for us, though, they made a 3-D version of our LONG LIVE SCIENCE logo.

Taking #LongLiveScience to the third dimension. #vismed3d A video posted by Chempetitive Group (@chempetitive) on Dec 15, 2015 at 11:44am PST

It’s exciting to see what the future holds for 3-D printing, a technology that’s driving innovation across so many industries and changing the world as we know it. For some really forward-thinking ideas about how 3-D printing can be used to breathe life into products and buildings, check out this fascinating TED talk about design at the intersection of biology and technology.