Current-generation 3-D printing is being used to improve the manufacturing and design of medical devices, but the future potential is even greater, specifically with respect to personalization and 3-D printed tissues.
 
Manufacturers traditionally offer a matrix of different sizes and shapes of their devices in an effort to enable treatment of as large as possible a group of patients.  Unfortunately, physicians often have to make do with the best size available, with potentially subpar outcomes. 3-D printing offers the potential to build devices customized to exact specifications, which has already been tested in a few scenarios. For ostomy patients, this very real need has led to a couple of entrepreneurs combining 3-D scanners and 3-D printers to model and then produce a personalized osotomy device. Another example is the Cortex Cast, a personalized cast that is waterproof and lightweight, replacing the traditional plaster cast. Again, combining medical imaging technology and 3-D printing, the developer built a web-like cast out of nylon, personalized to provide a superior fit and healing support.  Beyond the obvious benefits, the nylon construction is superior to plaster-based casts because it can get wet, unlike plaster.  While these casts currently take longer to produce and are more costly than the traditional cast, continued development is likely to negate both of these issues.  (From my perspective though, I think the biggest drawback might be that your friends can?t sign your cast.) Finally, in an ambitious project, surgeons are going to use 3-D printing to reconstruct a man's face.  The patient in question suffered a severe injury in a motorcycle accident, seriously damaging one side of his face. Physicians are planning to do a CT scan of the non-injured side of his face, and then mirror it to build a prosthesis to help reconstruct his face?amazing!

The biggest leap forward is still coming. There is talk about the ability of these printers to print living tissue, including organs and other complex structures. 3-D printed tissues are being investigated as ways to improve medical research, and potentially build functioning organs and structures that could be transplanted into patients. Companies such as Organovo are printing tissues that better mimic the complexity and responses of normal human tissue, allowing for the creation of better substrates to test pharmaceutical compounds, improving the drug development research pathway. The ability to print living organs would be huge because there is always a limited number of transplant organs available from donors. Using a 3-D printer to create tissues offers the potential to build from scratch a new organ, say, a heart valve perfectly tailored for a specific individual, with potentially reduced immunoacceptance.
 

Because 3-D printing is in its infancy, the number of applications for this technology is expected to grow as the technology expands. 

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