3D printing has revolutionized many fields. Now, it appears that this technology is expected to be life-altering in the medical world as well. From manufacturing organs, through planning complex procedures, to innovations in the pharmaceutical industry, researcher Rotem Sisso speaks of the existing uses of 3D printing in medicine and of future implementations on the agenda.
Printing Organs: The Key to Regenerative Medicine?
At the forefront of the medical applications of 3D printing is the potential to manufacture human organs, which is anticipated to aid in solving one of the medical world’s most severe difficulties: the shortage of organ donations and the long waiting lists for organ transplants. Printing artificial organs utilizes a sophisticated technique in which a biological mixture combining stem cells, growth factors and other biological substances is manufactured and used to print the organ based on a computer model. One of the most important global breakthroughs in the field came out of our very own little country, where in 2019, a group of researchers from Tel-Aviv University succeeded for the first time in printing a small human heart out of tissues collected from a patient and grown in a laboratory. The heart and blood vessels were printed based on CT and MRI scans of a human heart, and the researchers hope that in the future, they will be able to improve the mixture of biological tissues it is composed of, and grow the printed heart in a special environment that will permit the mature cells to communicate with each other and function with maximum efficiency and synchronicity.
Another promising development was made in 2022 by a group of researchers from the USA who succeeded in manufacturing a 3D model of a lung. The model had been successfully tested in animals, where it demonstrated gas exchange as in a real lung.
Beyond printing internal organs, 3D printing is already in use in manufacturing prosthetics (arms or legs) for many patients. The technology permits manufacturing customized prosthetics, which perfectly fit the unique anatomy of each patient, improving their comfort and functionality. Manufacturing times, that have become significantly shorter, also improve the quality of life of patients, who can now resume functionality sooner.
Planning Operations and Complex Procedures
Another important use of 3D printing in medicine is planning operations and complex procedures based on models that accurately simulate the organ being operated on. These models provide information and insights about complex anatomical structures and aid surgeons in planning the best and safest approach for the operation, and in practicing to improve their performance.
One of the most amazing operations planned in this manner is a complex and rare operation for separating conjoined twins, which took place at Soroka Hospital. As part of the preparations for this complex operation, the staff used 3D models based on a set of imaging scans of the twins, which accurately simulated the connections between the two’s blood vessels, meninges, cranial bones, and skin. The twins, who were joined at their heads, were successfully operated on by a multidisciplinary team in September 2021.
Drugs of the Future
3D bioprinting also transforms the way in which drugs are developed, tested, and adapted. Using functional and three-dimensional models of human tissues that mimic various organs, it is possible to test drugs and attempt to predict the response to potential drugs. Among other things, researchers succeeded in manufacturing 3D tissues that simulate healthy liver tissue and liver tissue with various disease conditions, and these are used to investigate new drugs for various liver diseases.
In the future, researchers hope that it would be possible to manufacture tissues that are as similar as possible to those of specific patients, in order to develop customized drugs for their conditions.
Challenges Alongside Opportunities
As with any innovative technology, 3D printing is also fraught with many challenges. Ensuring the safety and efficiency of printed tissues is required, especially when thoughts of transplanting printed organs and using 3D tissues for drug development purposes are on the agenda.
Looking ahead, as research and developments efforts continue to thrive, more and more potential uses of 3D printing will be added, creating opportunities for life-saving, customized treatments for many patients.