3D Printing—Customization for the Unique Human Body

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The Museum’s Health Sciences Department is partnering with the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to publish a monthly series on the Museum blog called “Know Health”. The articles focus on current health topics selected by CU’s medical and graduate students in order to provide both English and Spanish speaking communities with current, accurate information. The posts in the “Know Health” series are edited versions of articles that first appeared in Contrapoder magazine. Thank you to the students at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus for bringing these stories to life.



(aka Dr. Nicole Garneau, chair and curator, Health Sciences Department)




[en Español]


3D Printing—Customization for the Unique Human Body

by: Kelsey Repine, University of Colorado Medical School


            What if you could create anything you could dream of with the touch of a button? With 3-dimensional (3D) printing, you can. This new technology holds great promise for the medical field and may one day save time, money, and even human lives.

3D printing is a way to create objects by repeatedly layering thin sheets of a specific material. Using a virtual design of the object you want to create, you can build the object using a 3D printer. 3D printing has existed since 1984, but the range of possible uses have just recently become a reality as the technology is becoming cheaper and more accessible. 3D printing has already been used to create cars, machinery, and household objects. This exciting new technology is even being used to make implants and tissue replacements for humans. Although rigorous testing is still needed, 3D printing could change the face of medicine as we know it.  

            3D printing products have already been used in heart surgeries, cancer surgeries, bone replacements, cosmetic reconstructions, as well as limb prosthetics.  An example of its use is work from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Scientists there created a 3D printer that can manufacture joints and biological implants that are made of the same material as human bone. Researchers believe that these replacements will better lock to the patient’s cells and create a more stable and longer-lasting bone substitute than what is currently available. Another example comes from the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, Australia. Surgeons there have successfully used two spinal vertebrae with 3D printed titanium replacements in a patient with cancer. These examples show that a future of 3D printed organs are possible—cutting down wait-time on long donor lists and hopefully leading to more organ failure survival rates.

            Even though 3D printing appears to be the future of medicine, there are some concerns. Researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology found that the printer emits small particles that federal agencies commonly classify as dangerous and may have increased risks associated with them, including cancer. These small particles are produced when certain types of plastic melt during the printing process. To ensure that the benefits of 3D printing outweigh the risks, companies should investigate how to continue 3D printing in a healthy and safe manner, not only for the safety of patients but also for those who operate the machines.

            If the safety of 3D printing can be established, the applications for this technology are limitless. Perhaps the most exciting application may be the ability to create completely customizable body replacements. Every human body is extremely unique, so why should all of our prosthetics be the same? 3D printing may provide solutions for the rarities in each and every one of us.          


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