As people live longer and healthcare costs skyrocket, technology is now at the forefront of driving innovation and reducing costs. 3D printing is one of the latest technologies that is having a significant impact within the healthcare sector due to it rapidly increasing in quality and popularity over the past decade.
In the medical sector, 3D printing has evolved, for example, from the creation of relatively simple prosthetics to 3D printing a silicon prototype of a functioning human heart. It can also be used to speed up surgical procedures and produce cheaper versions of required surgical tools.
According to Gartner, medical 3D printing will have a predicted market value of US$1.2 billion by 2020. Furthermore, Gartner has estimated that 35 per cent of surgeries for prosthetics and implants will be performed with 3D printing by 2019.
One company paving its way in this field is Melbourne-based and Australian-owned medical device company, Anatomics. It has been manufacturing and marketing surgical products to surgeons locally and internationally with interest in its 3D implants for skulls, spines, hips and shoulders.
It is, therefore, an exciting time for healthcare companies to explore how medical 3D printing can be used.
Some areas currently seeing the most focus from healthcare organisations include:
- Bioprinting, which opens the door to on-demand human organ creation, including bones, cartilage and skin. With 3D printing, it could soon be possible to produce replacement organs or limbs.
- Medical 3D printing, which is being tested to produce personalised casts made of light plastic and fitting perfectly to the patient.
- Customised prosthetics and orthotics, as 3D printing dramatically brings down the production costs of such medical devices.
3D printed drugs
Moving forward, there is huge potential with the manufacturing of 3D printed drugs as it will increase drug efficacy, in part, by reducing variability. 3D printing allows for faster pre-clinical evaluations of new drugs and could also be used to allow various iterations of a new drug to be manufactured more quickly and cheaply.
In 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first 3D printed drug, Sprintam, used to treat epilepsy. Now, research is underway for a 3D printed "poly-pill", where multiple drugs for different diseases are combined into a single pill, which can be given to patients with multiple diseases.
3D printed organs
3D printing could also have huge benefits for patients who are waiting for an organ transplant. Research is currently being conducted on using 3D printers to create artificial hearts, kidneys and liver structures, as well as other major organs.
If research is successful, 3D printed organs could be an alternative solution for patients waiting for a donor transplant. In Australia, there are around 1600 people on the organ transplant waiting lists. On average, people on the transplant list can wait between six months to four years. With the use of 3D printing, these wait times could significantly be reduced, ultimately saving lives.
Personalised medicine is also far more viable with the advent of 3D printing.
For example, elderly patients in need of a hip or knee replacement could benefit from the 3D printer for specialty implants. Particularly, as the process is more exact, these patients would avoid the second or third procedure to replace traditional, less-effective implants.
It also promises a future of drugs printed on demand, to custom doses, and the possibility that cost may no longer be a barrier to making niche medicines.
While mainstream bioprinting is still in the infancy stage of development, healthcare organisations need to start considering how 3D printing could be implemented. This includes:
- Upskilling workers and establishing new business models.
- Partnering with innovative start-ups to help spur novel applications of 3D printing.
- Sharing the research and development costs.
- More collaboration across academia, governments and suppliers.
And while there have been some strong examples of collaboration locally, such as the Melbourne team from InveTech collaborating with Organovo to develop the first commercial 3D bio-printer, this needs to become more common place if the full benefits are to be realised.
The evolution will not happen overnight, but it is providing a glimpse into a brighter future. The potential for pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers to embrace the innovation is enormous.
Now is the time for healthcare leaders to collaborate, share ideas and become knowledgeable about the opportunities presented by 3D printing.
Dhannu Daniel is Accenture’s Lifesciences Lead for Australia and New Zealand.