The original Star Trek series took place in the mid-2200s, and to the television audiences of the 1960s, the technology in the show was pure, jaw-dropping science fiction. But in the 50 years since Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) of the U.S.S. Enterprise first uttered the immortal words, “Beam me up, Scotty,” a lot of what then seemed like fantastical technology has actually materialized—200 years early. Those communicators the crew used every day? You’ve probably got a better one in your pocket right now–and so does everyone you know. Phasers set to stun? We call them tasers now and they do pretty much the same thing. Computers that respond to voice commands and speak to us? Just say “Siri,” “Cortana,” or “OK Google” and you’re on your way. The universal translator is still a ways off, but there’s plenty of software that does a pretty good job of translating to and from a variety of languages. Want to put someone from another ship or planet “on screen”? No problem; Just fire up Skype or Google Hangout or FaceTime. Tricorders and diagnostic beds? Between MRIs and a variety of handheld diagnostic devices, we’re nearly there. Oh, and let’s not forget about GPS, Bluetooth headsets, touchscreen computers, and even floppy—and jump drives—all of which were pipe dreams in the 60s but yawn-inducingly common today. At least two pieces of Star Wars tech have stubbornly remained out of reach: warp drives and transporters. But a third, the replicator, which produced meals and objects on demand, is here now and has the potential to save millions of lives. We call it 3D printing.
3D printing (sometimes also called additive fabrication) has actually been around for decades and was used in manufacturing to produce complex prototypes. Most non-engineers had never heard of it, but when Cody Wilson, a student at the University of Texas showed off the Liberator—a 3D-printed, working handgun—everyone started to pay attention, and the technology is getting cheaper and better every day. On its most basic level, 3D printing uses a digital 3-dimensional model of an object, and “prints” it by applying hundreds or thousands of incredibly thin layers of material (often some kind of quick-drying liquid plastic or metal) on top of each other until the object is complete. The applications are endless—3D printers can now print almost anything you can imagine (including personalized bobbleheads based on pictures you take) using gold, silver, chocolate, wax, ceramics, and even animal and human cells. These last bits—the cells—have the potential to quite literally change the world we live in. Let me give you some examples of the absolutely amazing ways doctors and scientists are using 3D printing to improve—and save—lives. We’ll start with “that’s cool,” move on to “wow!” continue through “awesoooooome,” touch on slack-jawed, stunned silence, and finish up with a look into what’s in the pipeline.
A 5-year old boy in Barcelona, Spain had a tumor that was dangerously close to an artery. After two attempts, the surgeons thought it was inoperable. But, unwilling to give up, they 3D printed a detailed model of the tumor that they used to develop—and practice—a new approach. The third surgery was a success. Doctors around the world have used similar modeling to practice dangerous and highly complex surgeries on fingers, hips, optic nerves, heart valves, and others.
Scientists treating cancer in the UK have begun using CT scans to print exact replicas of patients’ tumors. They then fill those models with liquid and are able to see how chemotherapy drugs would flow through the tumor. This one’s not quite ready for prime time, but the hope is that oncologists will be able to use this technique to precisely target the best places to deliver those drugs.
Have you ever seen anyone using Invisalign—an alternative to traditional metal braces? Orthodontists create a model of the patient’s current bite, then 3D print a series of clear plastic “aligners” that gradually—and more aesthetically—move his or her teeth to where they’re supposed to be.
Scoliosis patients often have to wear back braces for hours every day. Until recently, those braces were bulky, uncomfortable, and impossible to disguise—a highly embarrassing combination that keeps many young people from wearing them enough to see the benefits. It’s now possible to print up a lightweight, breathable brace that fits the patient’s body perfectly. And it’s so thin that it can be worn under the clothing so it’s less visible. The same basic technique is being used to create splints and casts.
Skull and Bones
Surgeons in several countries have used 3D printing to create skull segments and facial bones that don’t exist (such as a jaw in a baby who was born without one) or have been badly damaged by trauma (like a motorcycle accident) or disease. They use the patients’ own intact bones as models to create replacements that perfectly match the patient’s face or skull. Sometimes the 3D printers use titanium, but they often use calcium phosphate, one of the major ingredients in our natural bones. That helps the implant fuse together with the surrounding bones.
Iron Man and Beyond
Very few people use prosthetic limbs to make a fashion statement. But thanks to 3D printing, a boy born without an arm now has a prosthetic one that looks just like Tony Stark’s, responds to movements, and even has a superhero grip. How cool is that. Making a prosthetic limb the soon-to-be-old-fashioned way can take weeks, but with 3D printing, we’re talking days. Regular prosthetics also tend to be expensive, routinely costing thousands—sometimes tens of thousands—of dollars. That’s a particularly big obstacle when a child is the patient, since kids outgrow their devices and regularly need new ones. Printed prosthetics typically cost hundreds, not thousands. Patients around the world are now wearing prosthetic arms, legs, hands, and feet. 3D printing is also being used to produce lifelike skin, noses, ears, and other external appendages that have been lost to disease, trauma, or birth defects.
It’s a lot easier to print replacements for bones or external body parts than internal ones. Putting any foreign object inside the body involves the risk of infection or rejection. But scientists and doctors are on the case and have already made amazing progress. Researchers have developed 3D printers that print with the patient’s own cells. Using that technique, they’ve successfully grown—and then implanted—veins, bladders, a trachea (a procedure that saved a baby’s life) and a few other not-very-complex organs.
The Holy Grail
In the U.S. alone, there are about 120,000 people on organ transplant lists. Every day, 79 people receive a transplant, but 22—more than 8,000 per year—die. Being able to print customized, rejection-proof organs is the ultimate goal for man researchers. But with complex organs like livers and kidneys, one of the biggest challenges is replicating an organ’s vascular structure (the system of veins and capillaries that keep it supplied with blood and oxygen). If you don’t get that right, the patient dies. But the advances are coming fast and furious. Labs in China and the U.S. have printed miniature, fully functional livers and kidneys (they’re great for research, but we’re still pretty far from human trials). It’s all about when, not if.