Tuesday, July 22, 2014

3-D Printing: The Future of Medical Technology

The world of medicine is constantly evolving and adapting to meet the demands of the modern world. As the world around us changes, so do the problems presented before us. Nevertheless, technological advances allow for those problems to not only be addressed, but also resolved. The growth of technology has allowed us to solve some of the dire problems in the modern world. Technology can revolutionize virtually any industry. No industry benefits greater from technological advancements than the medical industry. Advancements in medical technology are not only saving lives, but also prolonging lives and solving complex problems that are nothing short of science fiction.

The growth of medical technology over the past decade has been monumental, and has paved the road for a prosperous future of human health. From understanding and developing vaccines for globally threatening viruses, to manipulating stem cells to grow functional human organs, technology has ushered medicine into a new era. Despite the leaps and bounds of medical technology over the past decade, a relatively new technology finds itself on the cusp of greatness. This technology is three-dimensional printing, also known as additive manufacturing.

Manufacturing Made Easy 

Imagine a world where the ability to produce a good was as simple as printing a document from the computer. This concept sounds closer to something found in a futuristic science fiction novel, but it’s quickly becoming a tangible reality. Three-dimensional printing is the process of constructing a solid, three-dimensional object through the layering of materials. The process begins with a design that is uploaded to a computer. Next, the production ingredient is chosen and the design is sent to the 3D printer. The end product is a functional, three dimensional object with limitless possibilities.


Medical Technology and 3D Printing 

Three-dimensional printing will not only change the world of manufacturing, but will also allow for immense growth of medical technology. This growth is exactly that—growth. 3-D printing has the potential to one-day print functional human organs. This process—known as bioprinting—works by harvesting human cells from stem cells. Scientists then allow the harvested cells to proliferate in a petri dish. The outcome of this process is a mixture that can be fed into a 3-D printer programmed to combine raw materials and different cell types into a solid three-dimensional object.

The concept of growing human organs in a laboratory may appear controversial to some, but for many scientists the idea of bioprinting is both enthralling and promising. Genuine printed human organs would have several useful applications, for example, vaccine testing. Not only would testing vaccines on printed organs provide researchers with more accurate data, it would also prevent less reliable and inhumane testing methods.

Bioprinting is still in the development process. The Methuselah Foundation, however, has accelerated the process. The Virginia based foundation supports the new regenerative medicine research and announced it would award a $1 million prize to the first organization to print a fully functioning liver.


Ethical Dilemmas of Bioprinting 

While scientists champion the idea of bioprinting, some are more hesitant toward the fledgling technology. One fear is that the technology will advance faster than the understanding, including the ramifications, of the technology. Despite the well-intended nature of bioprinting, the technology presents several dangers. One danger is controlling who has the ability to produce human organs. Organ trading already exists within global black markets, and without strict regulation the ability to grow complex organs could be jeopardized. A second stumbling block is the price. Health care spending in the United States is greater than anywhere else on the planet, and the cost of bioprinting may put the revolutionary technology out of reach for most.

A Work in Progress 

3-D printing is still very much a work in progress. The concept is there, but it may be several years unil bioprinting becomes a reality. In addition, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would ultimately determine implementing 3-D printed organs in a surgical procedure—a review process that could take nearly a decade alone. For now, scientists are focused on developing the technology, and the first step will be printing strips of tissue that can be utilized to repair damaged organs. As technology continues to revolutionize the world we live in, the darkness ahead of us is becoming more and more illuminated.