3D printing technology opens up new possibilities
A new printing technology at Penn State Hershey gives doctors and researchers new possibilities.
Instead of ink on paper, a 3D printer can “print” strands of material in layers to create solid items. Doctors can imagine, design and create prototypes of everything from surgical tools to medical devices like abdominal drains and orthopedic screws.
“There is a big splash about 3D printing — and with good reason,” said Dr. Randy Haluck, vice chairman for technology and innovation for the Department of Surgery.
In the past, a doctor who wanted only a few of something for testing or custom use would have to go through a manufacturing process set up to make thousands of the same thing. Now, a single item or a small batch can be printed.
“This is faster, more efficient and cheaper,” said Dr. Peter Dillon, chair, Department of Surgery.
Just as a draft of text can be printed on a two-dimensional surface and then tweaked and revised before printing again, the same can be done with the 3D machine.
Haluck said, “We can also create complex shapes we wouldn’t otherwise be able to make through a standard manufacturing process of molding and milling.”
For example, a hollow, baseball-sized sphere with holes that folds is a prototype of an abdominal drain. Unlike traditional drains, the multiple nooks and crannies on the prototype would keep the bowel from clogging the drain, and allow fluid to flow through.
Dillon said the technology is also useful for planning complex surgeries. Surgeons can use a patient’s CAT scan to print a custom 3D model to map out the best surgery approach before setting foot in an operating room.
“It saves time and can create better results for the patient,” he said.
The printer at Penn State Hershey uses a material called ultem, which is a biocompatible polymer suitable for patient contact and implants.
While printed items are not used with patients, the ability to print with biocompatible materials makes it possible for devices created and tested at Hershey to be one day submitted for approval by the Food & Drug Administration.
“We’re not at that point yet, but we are creating the processes to make that reality,” Haluck said.
Members of Penn State Hershey’s Surgical Innovation Group – a device-development think tank on the Medical Center campus – can share their ideas with engineers in the artificial organs division, who then use the 3D technology to bring surgeons’ concepts into the tangible realm.
“Having it here in our department — literally footsteps away – rather than at some outside company somewhere means it is more accessible. And the more accessible it is, the more it will be used,” Haluck said.
When the two surgeons think about the possibilities for this rapidly evolving technology, they imagine it could one day be used for tissue engineering — printing custom organs for patients whose original ones have failed, or maybe new bones with optimized strength to replace broken or fractured ones.
“We could print cells, but we still have some tremendous biology hurdles in terms of getting them to survive and actually work,” Dillon said. “That is the future of all this though.”
- Jennifer Vogelsong