Contributed by Nisha K. Cooch, PhD

The potential applications of 3D printing to medicine have been popularized in recent years. Contributing to the excitement about the power of 3D printing in healthcare was the case of the boy with tracheobronchomalacia, a condition that involves weakened tissue of the airway and consequent airway collapse. After using a 3D printer to develop a splint for the boy’s airway, researchers reported in The New England Journal of Medicine that the 3D printing technique had helped physicians address the boy’s problem and that he was now living well, with no foreseeable complications. The success story has bolstered discussions on how 3D printing may be used in medical settings in the future. Here, we point to 5 potential applications.

  1. Printing organs for transplants: Dozens of people die each day while waiting for viable transplants to replace their deficient organs. Printing organs, such as kidneys, livers, and hearts, could significantly improve our ability to provide these organs for patients and reduce the administrative challenges associated with transplant donations. Researchers at the University of Iowa, led by Dr. Ibrahim Ozbolat, are conducting research with a bioprinter to mimic living tissue. They aim to develop human organs that are fully functional within 10 years.
  2. Providing regulatory organs: The inability for diabetics to properly regulate glucose has led to some ideas about how to potentially new organs that are customized for such conditions. For instance, diabetic patients could benefit from a 3D-printed pancreatic organ that is sensitive to glucose. Of course, developing organs themselves will be a challenge, and customizing them in this way will be a goal of the more distant future.
  3. Developing lifelike limb prostheses: Traditional prosthetic devices suffer  several limitations. For instance, they degrade over time, they are difficult to fit to patients’ bodies, and they are mechanical looking, contributing to the stigma associated with lacking limbs. Recently, doctors used a 3D-printed implant to replace 75% of a man’s skull. This innovative success provides great promise for the potential development of prosthetic pieces and hopefully one day, full prosthetic limbs.
  4. Studying cancer cells: Printing cells could overcome limitations related to identifying and isolating cancer cells for research. It could also allow researchers to provide better controls in their experiments. For instance, identical cells could be printed, and the environment in which the cells are studied could be systematically determined and controlled by researchers. Not only would this method enable researchers to better understand cancer cells themselves, but it would also provide a means for testing therapeutic interventions. Utkan Demirci, a biomedical engineer at Harvard University Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is leading a team of researcher in how to strategically apply 3D printing technqiues to the study of cancer cells.
  5. Providing skin grafts for burn victims: Currently, when people suffer severe burns, they have to undergo a painful process of having skin removed from one area and applied to the burned area. Researchers at the University of Toronto have created a technique for printing artificial skin layers that can be used for grafting.

There will likely be numerous applications for 3D printing in medicine as different techniques are attempted, and we gain a deeper appreciation of how to best use this technique to improve outcomes in healthcare. For now, progress is steady, with many exciting innovative applications being developed.

Nisha Kaul Cooch is the founder of BioInnovation Consulting LLC, a life sciences communications firm based in Washington DC. Dr. Cooch holds a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and specializes in the intersection of technology and decision making.

Views expressed are the author’s own.