Is there a Human Heart on Your 3D Printer?

3D printing is so accessible now, it has become a “must have” on many people’s technology lists. Shoe manufacturers offer you the ability to walk into a store and get a perfectly fitted, custom sneaker built as you watch. At home, you can “print” yourself matching dinnerware for your big fiesta. Schools are using 3D printers to add to their design, art, and technology curriculums. The US Department of Energy is even studying how 3D printing can help reduce waste by using raw materials. One area seeing rapid and tremendous growth using 3D printing is the medical field.

3D Printing Improving Your Life

There is now a wide array of medical uses like making orthotics, braces, and even human tissue. Your grandfather’s hearing aid and your invisible teeth aligners could have been produced by a 3D printer. Implants like hip and knee joints and cranial plates are being made with 3D printers. Surgical instruments can be quickly reproduced when broken or precisely printed based on the specific surgery. Customized tools like simple tweezers can now be made for any procedure in a relatively quick timeframe, and to any specification.

Prosthetics have become more readily available through 3D printing. In the past, prosthetics for children have been a difficult product to get, due to the production costs and children quickly outgrowing their prosthetics, or needing new ones. Now, with 3D printing, inexpensive prosthetics can be provided for children who have lost a hand or limb through birth defect or injury and reprinted at a larger size when the child outgrows the first one. A 3D printed prosthetic hand may not be high tech, but it is sufficient enough to hold a pencil, make a fist, and grab a baseball bat. These printed hands can even be colored to look like a super hero’s hand. And what kid wants to go to school with a boring old human looking hand when he can take a test with Iron Man’s?

In 2016, an Indiana man who had lost his lower jaw to tongue cancer was given a 3D printed jaw. The man’s jaw needed facial prosthesis four times greater than the capabilities of his doctor’s facility. Enter digital scanning, sculpting, and moldmaking and high resolution printing. Once a digital model of the patient’s face was created, an actual 3D printed mold was made to be watertight with fine details like pores. Now, the patient has a light, breathable, natural looking prosthetic that he feels comfortable wearing out in public.

3D Printed Tissues and Organs

And now it’s not only quality of life medical advances progressing with 3D printing. Real life saving models are being produced. In 2013, a 3 month old boy born with severely weak tissue in his airway was saved with a 3D printed surgically implanted tube that held his airway open. Over the next 3 years, as the boy’s own tissue grew around the tube, the tube harmlessly dissolved. The 3D printer gave doctors the ability to customize the design and size of the tube specifically to his needs and simply print it for surgery. 

Tissue engineering is another area revolutionizing the medical field. Human tissue can be constructed with a 3D printer, implanted in the body, and actually grow into the body. Currently, tissue engineering is used to reconstruct severely damaged bone and tissue structures. Still in research phases, but less of a pipe dream, are 3D printed living organs like a heart or liver.

Organovo, a medical lab and research company in California, has already begun engineering tissue for surgical therapy and transplantation. Developing technology with applications across a variety of cells helps them target different tissues. Cell sources can be either allogeneic (from another source) or autologous (from the patient’s own cells) which helps decrease the chance of rejection. It is already developmentally possible to create tubes, patches, and organoids through supplemental tissue therapies.

3D Printing Material

Obviously printing tissue, prosthetics or airway tubes that go in the body, the printing medium can’t be your everyday plastic. To 3D print antimicrobial surgical tools, new printer materials made from cellulose acetate are used. Cellulose acetate is a combination of acetate anhydride and the environmentally friendly cellulose. Evaporating the acetone solidifies the cellulose acetate and becomes an alternative to plastic that is stronger and with the addition of an antimicrobial dye, can actually kill bacteria. Now those 3D printed tweezers are not only the perfect size and shape, but are hygienic and pure for surgery.

Biocompatible material is needed for applications with prolonged skin contact (30+ days) and short term mucosal-membrane contact (up to 24 hours). Using a combination of stem cells and biocompatible materials, human tissue can be made. Another form of biocompatible materials can be used to make watertight tubes and instruments. It has a colorless transparency, high dimensional stability and high temperature printing capabilities and can not have contaminants and bacteria in the material. The pH and ORP (oxidation reduction potential) need to be at acceptable levels, thus need monitoring during the process.

Because of the combination of materials being used, some of which need to remain completely pure, 3D printing for medical applications requires a healthy, extremely clean environment. Filtering out the impurities becomes an even bigger and more important challenge knowing how pristine your final printed product needs to be. Universal Air Filter can help maintain the purity of your materials with a diverse set of filter options for the printer. UAF knows your printer requires a particular environment, and we’re here to exceed your demands and keep out every pollutant you don’t want. And 3D printers come in many sizes, but regardless of its size, UAF has the right filter, and if we don’t, we can custom build a filter to your exact specifications.

And not just for keeping out contaminants and particles, but we can help preserve those ideal thermal temperatures. Because medical grade products need to print at very high temperatures, the printers require constant monitoring to maintain just the perfect climate, which is where UAF jumps in to help.

Aside from air filters and thermal control for the actual 3D printers, Universal Air Filter continues to evaluate ways 3D printing can enhance our internal processes to service all of our customers’ needs, not just the ones working on life saving medical 3D printing. Furthering the uses for 3D printing, some customers have sent us 3D prototypes to help us perfectly customize the specific filters they need. The prototypes ensure that we have built the filter exactly as needed and advances our processes and knowledge – a win-win for us all.