Several of my past blog posts (e.g., Watch Materials Science Push the Boundaries of Possibility in Sochi and Beyond) have focused on a variation of a single theme: materials science can significantly improve our lives. 3-D printing, which I have discussed in a previous post, is one area that is paving the pathway of change. In a nutshell, 3-D printers are machines that “grow” objects by depositing successive layers of raw materials onto a substrate to create nearly any complex shape. Although there is much room for advances to this technology, 3-D printers can step in when our bodies fail.
3-D printers can manufacture mechanical prosthetic devices that function like actual limbs. In my last blog post, I mentioned how advanced materials have been used to develop prosthetic limbs and peripheral tools that give para-athletes the ability to participate in sports. If you can dream it, you can build it, and 3-D printers are an excellent manufacturing method to create functional prostheses. A mechanical special effects artist named Ivan Owen has had a vision of “people being able to build their own prosthetic device at home,” reinforcing the trend of 3-D printers having a greater presence in our homes. Nearly three years ago, he used 3-D printing to construct a custom prosthetic hand for a five-year old. A video he posted online inspired a Massachusetts man to create a prosthesis with movable fingers for his son that cost only $10, versus a standard hand prosthetic which can cost $20,000–$30,000.
3-D printing has been used to create bone and tissue from biomaterial “inks.” Scientists at Northwestern University have created such inks by taking a mineral found in bone – hydroxyapatite – and combining it with a biodegradable polyester to print materials that mimic the structure and properties of bone. When stem cells are injected into the printed bone scaffold, they naturally recognize the bone-like material and develop into bone cells. This practice has already helped save money and lives at hospitals around the world. 3-D printed bone models can cost as little as $150 and be available in a week’s time, which makes them more feasible for many patient cases in contrast to traditional bone models that can cost thousands of dollars and take weeks to complete.
What about organs? By applying the same concept of using biomaterial inks to mimic bone, organs can be grown by printing scaffolds that host human cells. Innovative bio-printing companies like Organovo are now producing 3-D printed livers for medical studies and drug research. Although advances are being made, the major hurdle for creating working organs with 3-D printer lies in successfully mimicking the vascular system to carry oxygen and nutrients to organs. If successful, the manufacturing of viable organs using 3-D printing could curtail or eliminate organ transplant waiting lists, providing an alternative for the 15,000 patients currently waiting for new livers, or the nearly 100,000 patients that currently need a new kidney.
As 3-D printing becomes more precise and less expensive, the quick manufacturing of functional body parts will become a commonplace way to improve the quality of life. Even so, the benefits of 3-D printing only scratch the surface of the many ways that materials science can improve our lives.