3D printers: A revolutionary frontier for medicine

REGINA — Mission control on earth receives an urgent communication from Mars that an astronaut has fractured his shinbone. Using a handheld scanning device, the crew takes images of his damaged tibia and transmits them to earth.


Orthopedic surgeons then use a 3D printer to create an exact replica of the astronaut’s leg from medical imaging files obtained before the voyage. Surgeons on earth use a robot to stabilize the bone with a metal plate on the 3D replica. The data is transmitted back to Mars, where surgical instruments, a personalized plate and screws are 3D printed. Finally, a surgical robot operates on the injured astronaut.


As a neurosurgeon and a researcher in remote presence robotics, I offer you this vision of the future. I am also a member of the Expert Group on the Potential Healthcare and Biomedical Roles for Deep Space Human Spaceflight of the Canadian Space Agency. Though 3D printing in space is still in early development, a revolution in 3D printing is already occurring closer to home. And it has transformative implications for the future of health care.


What is 3D printing?


Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, uses a digital model to build an object of any size or shape _ by adding successive layers of material in a single continuous run. This layering capability allows the manufacturing of complex shapes, such as the intricate structure of bones or vascular channels, that would be impossible to create by other methods.


Advances in computer design and the ability to translate medical imaging – such as X-rays, computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or ultrasound – to digital models that can be read by 3D printers are expanding its applications in health care. 3D printing is opening a horizon of amazing possibilities, such as bioprinting living tissues with “biological ink”.

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