3D Printing Body Parts: This 24th Century Technology is Only a Few Years Away!

By: Jared N. Matlis, Research Assistant

Science fiction is humanity’s prediction of its own future, but is often the inspiration for it.  Star Trek is a prime example of this irony, from computer tablets to flip phones, this show inspired the technological advancements it had envisaged.  

While some of these creations, like starships and teleporters, are still out of our reach, others are closer than we expect. Especially in the field of medical devices.  

For instance, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Ethics”, Lieutenant Worf is paralyzed from the waist down because of damage to his spinal cord. Despite the severity of his injury, Worf recovers due to Dr. Crusher’s implementation of a synthetic spinal cord which replaced his damaged one. Even in the 24th century, this is considered an experimental procedure, so it must be centuries ahead of us now, right? With 3D Printing, this level of medical device may only be a few years away. 

Though it is still in its infancy, 3D Printing is possibly the most versatile technology we have access to. From sculptures to spacecraft parts, many industries and hobbies have been forever changed by Additive Manufacturing. Under the guidance and regulation of the FDA (see: FDA Discusses Challenges and Opportunities for 3D Printing in Life Sciences), this innovation is being adapted to meet the medical needs of the public. Within the FDA article 3D Printing of Medical Devices, it is emphasized that this technique has impacted every aspect of the medical industry, from devices to drug manufacturing. Specifically, “medical devices produced by 3D printing include orthopedic and cranial implants, surgical instruments, dental restorations such as crowns, and external prosthetics.” 

With all of this, the greatest strength of Medical 3D Printing is personalization. In the past, devices meant to work within a patient’s body, such as a hip replacement, were based on a standard model, unable to cope with the unique aspects of the individual.  By contrast, 3D Printing allows doctors to specifically design these devices based on the person’s physiology.

Even with all this versatility, printing medical devices is not the same as creating living tissue or organs. That is why a new branch of research has opened based on 3D Printing: Bioprinting. Companies like Cellink are working towards amazing breakthroughs, such as the creation of organs and regeneration of patient-specific limbs through additive manufacturing.   

So, the medical wonders of the future, like Worf’s Spine are closer than we hoped… which means starships can’t be far behind.  

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