Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah
The Star Trek franchise has long predicted the future of 3D technology. From holographic images that allowed one captain to speak to another through distances in space to a replicator that can make a meal magically appear, society was just waiting for the technology to catch up with the fantasy.
The invention of the 3D printer brought this vision one step closer. In 1984, Charles Hull filed a patent for the technology using a system he called STL, or Stereolithography File Format. He defined the process as a “system for generating three-dimensional objects by creating a cross-sectional pattern of the object to be formed.” Today, 3D technology has become sophisticated enough that we use CAD (computer-aided design) programs to help with the 3D rendering of whatever object is to be replicated. While the most common material used to create objects is plastic, many other materials can be used, including living cells.
Bringing us even further into a sci-fi like universe where the heights of technology are increasingly indistinguishable from magic, scientists and those in the medical field jumped on the chance to make use of 3D printing to benefit their field. Originally used to mostly produce models and prototypes, it can also be used to create highly customized prosthetics and implants tailored to each patient’s individual needs. Not having to settle for something mass created can make all the difference to the suitability of the prosthetics or speed of healing. In addition, the efficiency with which these devices can be created can now allow for a lower cost, expanding their availability.
Back to that futuristic world. Remember we said that even living cells can be used as material for 3D printing? Well, scientists have developed the ability to print actual organs and tissues. With long transplant lists and not enough donors, the ability to 3D print body parts has the potential to truly change the face of the medical field. Lack of donors would not be an issue, and the desperate hunt for an exact match would be a problem of the past. Moreover, complications from organs that are not suited to the patient’s body can often be just as dangerous as the original disease itself. And even if the body doesn’t outright reject these foreign organs, the patients are required to take immunosuppressants for the rest of their lives.
Additionally, 3D printing doesn’t just have uses for actual surgery. In a strikingly similar fashion to the medical equipment aboard Enterprise, Voyager, or Deep Space 9, surgeons have used the 3D printer to print a replica of their patient’s specific anatomy. This will then allow them to gain insight into best appropriate surgical processes before making their cuts, saving the patient from potential complications or the doctors themselves from making the wrong cuts.
Beyond the “wow” factor, 3D printing is proving itself to be more than just a fad, and it’s life-saving potentials are set to be revolutionary.