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18 July 2012

3D Printing and the Future of Orthopedics

Slowly but surely, 3D printers are revolutionizing the world. While most of the population is enjoying the ability to create instant prototypes, spare appliance parts or one-of-a kind art projects, the medical world has been looking at ways to use 3D printers to turn debilitating conditions into minor inconveniences. Particularly in the field of orthopedics, 3D printing technology is revolutionizing medicine.

For example, surgical implants can be quickly crafted to precise specifications using 3D printers, streamlining what has been a painstaking and costly procedure fraught with pitfalls. Even more exciting, some patients have already received synthetic facial bones that were printed using 3D printers. The bones are not structurally strong enough to be used in weight-bearing applications, but researchers are developing techniques that will produce bone that are strong enough to be used anywhere in the body.

Researchers at Washington State University recently unveiled a new technology that will one day allow orthopedic surgeons to print dissolvable armatures that would support the growth of precisely engineered natural bones. These engineered bones would replace those destroyed or damaged by disease or injury. Researcher Susmita Bose says that the technology has already been successful in animal studies.

Bose estimates the technology is 10 to 12 years away from practical human applications. However, just as PC technology and the Internet resulted in dramatically faster technological advances in many fields, including medicine, the widespread availability of 3D printing technology will likely result in greater technological advances at even greater speeds in the future.

Already, 3D printing technology has led to the creation of highly accurate models that are used to aid scientists and doctors in studying the human body. Similar models use CT scans to replicate structures in actual patients and act as models that are used in planning for delicate orthopedic operations or to evaluate patients’ conditions. These models have proven especially useful in surgery for scoliosis or kyphosis, as well as in maxillofacial surgery.

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