Patient-specific hearing aids manufactured using 3D printing are already on the market in millions. However, there are other approaches and treatment methods that could benefit from this manufacturing technology.
The additive manufacturing revolutionizes the medical landscape on many levels. A very good and not even exotic example of what it offers is hearing aids. The advantages of 3D printing technology were quickly recognized: the manageable size of the devices, the requirements for their material properties, the high costs of traditional production methods and the advantages of a patient-specific adaptation make them the ideal object for 3D printing.
However, users also use 3D printing technology to create completely new possibilities in medical care. For example, Scott Hollister, Ph.D., and Glenn Green, MD from University Michigan / USA, made headlines with a patient-specific, 3D-printed bioresorbable air tube. This has already saved several children with a life-threatening and rare disease, tracheobronchomalacia, from suffocation. Patient-specific implants were designed for them, and they are also being implemented thanks to recent developments in material research and advances in 3D printing.
Another area in which generative manufacturing offers advantages is the planning of complex operations that correct congenital heart defects. The American Kosair Children’s Clinic was confronted with four such heart problems with the fall of a fourteen month old baby. The complexity of the malformations made the planning of the operation very difficult. A physical model and a 3D visualization of the organ were indispensable. The software package Mimics Innovation Suite from the Belgian company Materialise enabled the child’s cardiovascular anatomy to be precisely represented and scaled for better visualization. The model was cut into three parts so that the internal structures of the heart were clearly analyzed. Thanks to the 3D-printed model, the surgeons were able to simplify the surgical strategy and ultimately correct heart defects. This approach was effective and minimized the postoperative treatment effort.
Operations in the oral-jaw-facial area also benefit from 3D printing, since head and neck not only need to correct the anatomy, but also meet high aesthetic requirements. Companies like OBL in Paris use the Mimics Innovation Suite software to reconstruct the missing half of a patient’s healthy face. By means of 3D printing from titanium powder, light and stable implants can be produced on this basis, which correspond to the anatomy of the patient. Materialise is currently testing additive titanium production to further develop its application for medical purposes. Thus, implants with a porous structure are to be produced which are equivalent to the thermal and mechanical behavior of the human bone.
However, since insurance companies have not yet incorporated such innovative methods into their remuneration systems, they are currently eligible for extremely complex or hopeless cases – although they can improve clinical outcomes and reduce overall treatment costs.
Doctors of the Boston Children’s Clinic, however, were not deterred by such considerations, using an elastic 3D-printed plastic model that corresponded to a child’s brain. All the blood vessels were presented in a contrasting color in order to practice hemispherectomy – an extremely complex and rare procedure in which one hemisphere is separated from the other. The planning and simulation with the 3D model helped the surgeon very much and helped the child’s operation to be successful.