3D printers are saving lives in medicine by transforming digital files into three-dimensional, real-life, solid objects. The devices offer the promise of revolutionizing healthcare, and the industry’s 3D printing market is expected to reach $4 billion by 2018, reports MedCity News.

As the technology grows more sophisticated—all while costs drop—healthcare experts are busily envisioning the possibilities and putting the methods to work.

How do 3D printers work?

3D printers work by releasing material in layers. As the layers accumulate, they take the shape of the object described in a digital file.

The digital file is created with computer-aided design (CAD). Another option is to replicate existing objects by scanning them with a 3D scanner, explains 3Dprinting.com, the industry’s online newspaper.

The printers are realizing ideas that were seemingly unfathomable just a few decades ago. Their true potential may be limited only by the reaches of scientists’ willingness to believe.

3D printers create heart models

Last year, doctors in Louisville, Kentucky saved the life of a 14-month-old boy who was diagnosed with multiple heart defects with the help of a printed 3D heart model. Doctors used CT scans to create the model, which allowed them to analyze the complicated condition before surgery, reports Forbes.

Without the 3D heart replica, doctors wouldn’t have been able to view the defects until the patient’s chest was open in the operation room. The risky surgery was successful, and was the first time 3D printing was used in Kentucky for a pediatric heart patient.

This process of printing human tissue is called bio-printing. It first emerged in the early 2000s, but the science is rapidly evolving and its uses are poised to transform healthcare.

In June, doctors at Michigan’s Spectrum Health for the first time combined two different types of sophisticated imaging—CT scans and 3D transesophageal echocardiography, used to evaluate the health of heart valves—to build the world’s first hybrid 3D patient heart model, according to Spectrum Health. Earlier hearts were built using only one type of imaging.

Next, researchers are working to add magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) into the mix to create even more accurate heart models. Study author Dr. Jordan Gosnell says:

“Hybrid 3D printing integrates the best aspects of two or more imaging modalities, which can potentially enhance diagnosis, as well as interventional and surgical planning.”

Transplant-ready body parts

3D printing may be helpful for creating model hearts and other organs, but researchers are working to broaden the market for implantable body parts, including hip replacements, outer ears, and bones.

The market for printed body parts was about $537 million in 2014, up from 30% the year before, reports the journal Nature. Experts predict the field will continue growing rapidly.

Much of the existing real-world market comes from titanium hip joint replacements, however custom-order polymer bones are also being used to repair skull damage and fingers.

Researchers in this industry see live cells essentially as ink. The cells are used to layer tissues on top of each other, using the same principle behind all other 3D printing, only with organic material. San Diego-based bioprinting company Organovo says its cells will soon be used to help people repair liver damage, according to Nature.

Organovo representatives stopped short of saying that 3D printers would ever be used to print entire hearts or kidneys ready for transplant, but other healthcare researchers aren’t so coy.

Dr. Anthony Atala is the director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and he’s devoting much of his career to developing life-saving organs.

Regenerative medicine seeks to end the dire shortage of organs, whether that’s through 3D printing or some other mechanism. It’s estimated that 21 people in the U.S. die every day while waiting on lengthy organ transplant lists, according to the Huffington Post.

Atala says his team has already created bladders—a hollow organ, skin, cartilage and other human parts and implanted them in patients. He says:

“Our goal is to engineer organs using a patient’s own cells. With this approach, there would be no issues with rejection, and patients wouldn’t have to take the powerful anti-rejection drugs that are now required.”

While hollow organs like bladders and simple body components have been printed, huge challenges remain before more complex organs like kidneys could be created.

The process involves taking a biopsy of the organ needing replacement, and then identifying cells within that organ with the potential for regeneration. The cells of interest are mixed with a special liquid solution and placed in a printer cartridge. A separate cartridge contains biomaterial that forms the actual organ structure. The cartridges then build the organ using information from patient medical scans.

Atala didn’t say when he thought implantable complex organs would become reality, but believes it’s still decades away.

3D printing helps generate nerve tissue

Other researchers have used the devices to help rebuild nerve tissue. Although humans are continually regenerating cells, nerve cells aren’t among them; we’re born with a fixed number.

This makes nerve damage incredibly hard to heal from because the existing cells must regenerate. Scientists at Michigan Technological University printed special scaffolding capable of hosting nerve cells as they grow, reports MedCity News. The team hopes to make these cells fully functioning and ready for implantation into patients.

The cells could help patients with spinal cord injuries regenerate damaged nerve tissue.

Better-fitting, more affordable prosthetic limbs

Another benefit of the technology’s ability to create patient models appears in the field of prosthetics. Doctors hope to use 3D printers to help patients needing prosthetic limbs get a better fit.

A startup named Project io is working to scan the patient’s existing limb and use the model to create a better-fitting prosthetic for the other side. The company is making an app for developing prosthetics available for download on mobile devices like iPads.

Project io isn’t the only company working toward this type of goal: The Open Hand Project is working to make robotic hands used for amputees more available. Prosthetics come with a steep price tag—up to $100,000—and the company hopes to use 3D printing to drop the price below $1,000. That would make the devices more widely available and improve the lives of amputees everywhere.

What are you most excited to see 3D printers accomplish?

Image by UCL Engineering via Flickr

Get Free Email Updates!

Weekly updates on conditions, treatments, and news about everything happening inside pain medicine.