There's been a lot of hype around 3D printing, but its applications in medicine are real.
Advances in "additive manufacturing" -- the industrial version of 3D printing -- are being applied toward federally approved medical devices, and have enabled surgeons from Scotland to Chicago to inexpensively visualize medical procedures before performing them. But that's far from all: Doctors are also crafting personalized bones and joints for their patients.
The devices and materials used today in a medical context often go well beyond the plastic and resin prototypes commonly associated with 3D printing; though in both cases, machines add successive layers of materials together to form an object that can then be refined. The industrial-grade printers used for medical purposes or military manufacturing, however, use focused electron beams and powdered metal alloys to create parts, not plastic feedstock.
Here are six remarkable examples of body parts that 3D printers have already been used to create. (Warning: Some of the videos included are graphic.)
1) A new cranium
In 2014, a Dutch woman received the first full 3D-printed skull implant.
“Implants used to be made by hand in the operating theatre using a sort of cement which was far from ideal,” Dr. Ben Verweij, a neurologist who led the medical team that crafted the prosthetic bone, told Dutch News. “Using 3D printing we can make one to the exact size. This not only has great cosmetic advantages, but patients’ brain function often recovers better than using the old method.”
2) A new vertebra
In 2014, a 12 year-old boy received the first-ever vertebra made on a 3D printer. The new bone was printed from titanium powder and featured a pocked surface, ensuring that his bones would fuse with the implant as he grew.
3) Part of a rib cage
This summer, a cancer patient in Spain received a titanium 3D-printed sternum and several ribs after his original bones were removed to excise a tumor. According to CNET, surgeons in Salamanca commissioned Anatomics, a medical device company in Australia, to create the customized implant.
4) A nose for a girl born without one
In the United Kingdom, a 3D printer will be used to build a nose for a little girl. The printed material will be implanted under her skin in stages, and a medical tattoo artist will give her nostrils and nose contours.
5) A lifesaving airway for a baby
In 2013, doctors at the University of Michigan used a 3D printer to create a splint for a baby boy born with a rare, potentially fatal condition that causes the airways near the lungs to collapse.
"We custom designed Kaiba’s splint using high-resolution images from a CT scan of Kaiba’s trachea and the bronchus that was collapsing," wrote Glenn Green, one of the doctors responsible for the device. "Using computer-aided design and a special laser-based 3-D printer, we produced the splint specifically to fit Kaiba’s needs."
In 2015, doctors have figured out how to make a 4D airway splint for babies. The fourth dimension refers to time, in this case. The breathing devices grows with the child and then dissolves.
6) A new arm
While we're still a long way away from realizing the full sci-fi future of Steve Austin and "The 6 Million Dollar Man" from the 1970s, partially "bionic" men and women are now reality.
Researchers and doctors have been developing increasingly robust bionic limbs -- body parts that are stronger or more capable through electronic devices -- for patients. (The field of bionics refers to "the study of mechanical systems that function like living organisms.")
Since July, over a million people have watched this YouTube video of a girl named Isabella unpacking her new 3D-printed arm. It's still as heartwarming as ever.
Every year, these limbs are getting more and more affordable, like the prosthetic below, which was developed by a team at the University of Central Florida.
In the future, some of these prosthetic limbs will be directly wired to the human brain, giving amputees and paralyzed people increased mobility and ability. That's the kind of mind control worth creating.