Friday, March 2, 2018

In Medical 3D Printing, The Ears Have It.

A before-and-after of how a 3D printed prosthetic accurately "snaps" into place.
As 3D printing makes its way out of the prototype labs and into countless real-world scenarios, it seems to be accelerating fastest among the advances in the medical industry. While this includes uses such as designing and building cutting edge technology and instruments, 3D printing has now extended beyond the tools, and is now showing multiple ways it can assist in the actual material of the medical world itself: the human body.

In the US, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore worked to combine CT scanning with 3D printing to create custom-designed prosthetic replacements for parts of the middle ear. Led by Jeffrey Hirsch MD, assistant professor of radiology at the university, the team finally created a breakthrough in a procedure that had been attempted unsuccessfully before. Hearing loss can often be a result of damage to the three tiny bones in the middle ear called the ossicles. Because their job is to conduct sound from the ear drum to the cochlea, ossicles are extremely unique to the shape of an individual's ear. Whereas surgery has been an option in the past to repair or reconstruct those bones, the ossicles are so tiny that the procedure has a high failure rate. Integrating 3D printing into the process of prosthetic manufacture, however, greatly improves the accuracy of a replacement doing the job of the original bones. As Dr. Hirsch explained in a press release to Radiological Society of North America, "This study highlights the core strength of 3-D printing — the ability to very accurately reproduce anatomic relationships in space to a sub-millimeter level...With these models, it's almost a snap fit."

 reconstruct the degenerating ears of five children. The patients, each suffering from a form of microtia, had their healthy ears mapped out, and new ears cultivated from their own cells in a lab. Thus, a major regenerated body part grown on a mold, was able to remain compatible and reattach itself. This has incredible ramifications. In addition to revolutionizing how facial and body reconstruction is done, it proves the current limits of surgery when it comes to cartilage growth, organ donation, and prosthetics themselves may soon prove obsolete.
While this is one demonstration of the successful role 3D printing can have to bridge gaps existing between traditional technology and biological progress, it is not the only one. Using the similar method of complimenting 3D printing with CT scanning, tissue engineers in China were recently able to

How CT scanning works with 3D printing for reconstruction
Is it possible both these advances can co-exist? Or do they demonstrate a fork in the road for the medical industry. Beyond the ear, it seems the added bonus of creating organic composition with 3D printers makes using any foreign materials unnecessary for any part of the human body, in the long run. Perhaps this could one day be the case, but as engineering advancements on the genetic level with CRISPR are currently proving, to give the green light to our anatomy as a part of the supply chain may open up very dicey ethical questions.  3D printing is obliterating walls between the industrial and biological revolutions; we may find out sooner than later whether we are prepared for what that could mean.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

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