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3D printing brings high-end healthcare to homes

Medical advances have helped prolong and improve lives enormously, and pushed care out of hospitals and into the home for ongoing conditions like musculoskeletal problems and diabetes care. But some things still remain in the realm of hospitals, because they require specialised equipment or tailored, 24/7 care that can’t be replicated at home.

However, innovations in 3D printing and other additive manufacturing methods are helping reduce the number of hospital-based health monitoring and care issues, allowing more people to have high-end healthcare in the home.

“The technology has developed significantly over the last few years,” says Atanu Chaudhuri, professor in technology and operations management at Durham University, who is a specialist in medical technology. Chaudhuri says that applications of 3D printing and additive manufacturing more generally in the hospital space have developed at a faster rate than home-based tech solutions have, but both are still vital.

One example of the innovation provided through 3D printing is in the development of key components for a mass spectrometer, used to measure the level of chemical components in a given sample of – for instance – blood.

Mass spectrometers cost huge sums of money because they are precision manufactured, which has traditionally meant they are carefully coveted by hospitals, and never let out of wards. That means patients who suffer from conditions like hyperthyroidism have to travel back and forth to hospitals for regular testing to monitor their hormone levels. But by being able to 3D print elements of the device, including an ioniser, researchers hope to reduce the travel involved, and resultantly improve the lives of those with the illness.

“Our big vision is to make mass spectrometry local,” says Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, a principal research scientist in MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories, which recently published a paper outlining how they had managed to 3D print the ioniser for a mass spectrometer, which charges blood molecules to enable them to be analysed. “For someone who has a chronic disease that requires constant monitoring, they could have something the size of a shoebox that they could use to do this test at home. For that to happen, the hardware has to be inexpensive,” says Velásquez-García.

It’s far from the only example of 3D printing tech helping bring high-end healthcare into homes. Engineering researchers at Loughborough University have developed a manufacturing process, harnessing the power of 3D printing, that can produce lower-limb socket prostheses outside of the hospital. The process, which involves taking a 3D scan of the user’s limb and then designing a device using computer aided design (CAD) software, and eventually 3D printing the actual wearable prosthesis, would usually take three to six weeks using traditional methods. However, with this new method, it can be done with a 3D printer, from start to finish, in eight hours or so.

Similar work is being done by colleagues of Ricky Wildman, a professor at the University of Nottingham who is conducting research into 3D printing and additive manufacturing. “We’ve been doing a lot of good work on prosthetics, prostheses and assistive devices,” he says.

Wildman himself has also been studying how 3D printing can help produce drug compounds that can speed up the issuing of medicine to patients outside of specialised hospital pharmacies – but acknowledges that much of the engineering work being done on medical hardware such as mass spectrometers and prostheses is taking precedent because those are less tightly regulated areas of medicine that make innovation easier.

That issue of regulation – and the importance of it – highlights the limiting factor of these engineering feats. “With anything that you manufacture yourself, when it comes to something to do with healthcare or some other regulated industry, there is always a risk that if you are not [an] expert, that you might cause more damage to yourself or to others than you might do otherwise,” he says.

Chaudhuri sees opportunities beyond those mentioned above in areas like at-home devices or equipment, where the customisability of the products is limited to a small, pre-set range. “They can be lots of elderly patients who need lots of devices, like a walking device, or something to go to the toilet. Many of these are rarely customised.”

Being able to 3D print those devices to the specific measurements of the patient will be a game-changer, Chaudhuri believes. “This will help support recovery better, because it is really customised,” he says.

The customisability of engineering is something that Wildman also believes is likely to be a game-changer for medicine. “Most of the benefits around using 3D printing don’t necessarily lie in the democratisation of 3D printing, and by that, I mean that everybody has one in the home – though there are some significant benefits in allowing people to manufacture on-demand,” he says. “They’re more in the realm of being able to manufacture complex and potentially optimised structures and also within industry being able to cut out supply chains.” That will result in faster, more effective treatment and equipment reaching the people who need it most at a lower cost – a benefit for all. IMechE

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