Amazing Attachments

Regular readers of this blog will know that we've shared many wonderful stories about the use of 3D printing in the field of medicine. The technology has quickly been adopted for everything from the growth of replacement organs to the creation of prosthetic limbs. The processes associated with 3D printing could become one of the most revolutionary advances in the history of modern medicine.

With all the advances made so far, perhaps the most pleasant surprise is that they're showing no signs of slowing. Thanks to this technology, ailments and disabilities previously thought to have no treatment could have possible cures. The following stories document the latest advances of medical 3D printing, and it's safe to say they won't be the last.

Homegrown Hearts

Scientists at the University of Florida recently made headlines when they revealed that they'd created a new gel-based 3D-printing process. Printed using this process, the final product is less likely to fall apart after printing is complete. The University had successfully printed complex shapes with a variety of materials, including living cells from human blood vessels and canine kidneys. Although this would seem to be the perfect prelude for the printing of replacement organs, the university's team was unable to keep the living cells alive within the gel. That's where Carnegie Mellon comes in.

cells in gel
Image via IFL Science.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have long been working on their own process for 3D-printing organs. They recently had a major breakthrough when they concluded that they could successfully print a working human heart. Using a chemical-based gel process of their own design, the researchers began printing arteries and veins.

The heart being an organ that is unable to repair itself when injured, the importance of the Carnegie process was not lost on its creators. Although printing a complete organ is still expensive and time-consuming, the idea that it may become a commonplace process isn't so far-fetched anymore.

Heavily Armed

The ability to procure a prosthetic limb isn't only a matter of restoring physical ability. Social stigmas associated with being an amputee must be overcome. Great strides have been made in making modern prosthetics as visually appealing as they are functional. Yet, as appealing as the new designs are, they still lack sensation, and may draw unwanted attention to the amputee. It has long been the goal of prosthetic designers to create a skin-like covering that would look as real as organic skin and provide a sense of touch to the wearer. Science has just moved one step closer to attaining these goals.

prosthetic hand
Image via Gizmodo.

Researchers at Stanford University, led by electrical engineer Benjamin Tee, have created a system they call DiTact (The Digital Tactical System). It uses a series of sensors in the prosthetic which sends signals back to the optical nerves in the brain, restoring a sense of touch to the amputee. What's more, the artificial skin is made from flexible material. The next step will be to recreate the look of organic flesh. This is, however, only a long-term goal for the Stanford team.

As inspiring as the above stories are, it's too soon to say that made-to-order organs will be readily available. But with 3D-printing technology being used to create everything from fire arms to human teeth, don't be surprised if printed replacements come sooner than you'd expect.

Give Them a Hand

27. August 2015 13:57 by Steve Leigh in Technology News  //  Tags: , , ,   //   Comments (0)

It's said that the first five years of a child's life are, developmentally, the most important. These are the years when children begin to develop their motor skills, personality, and outlook, and it's crucial that children be given every opportunity to meet their full potential.

Not all children are born with the advantages of their peers. Thankfully, advances in technology are helping disadvantaged children stand on equal footing with their classmates and friends. The following stories look at how that 3D-printing technology is helping children with disabilities during these crucial developmental years.

Field of Dreams

It's not easy for a sports fan to steal attention from seasoned athletes, but that's just what happened on August 17th when five-year-old Hailey Dawson—one the Orioles' biggest fans—threw the ceremonial First Pitch with her new 3D-printed arm.

Hailey has a condition known as Poland Syndrome. Her right arm stopped developing while she was still in the womb.

Hailey's parents did extensive research into prosthetics, but quickly found them to be expensive and unable to adapt to a child's growth. That's when Hailey's mother turned to the University of Nevada Las Vegas, whose engineering students were more than happy to help. Using a free online design, the students printed and assembled an arm for Hailey, adorned with the logo and colors of her favorite team. The entire process cost $20.

"[The 3D-printed hand] is operated by wrist movement," says Hailey's mother, Yong. When Hailey's wrist goes to a down motion, the fingers will grasp and when it goes in the up motion, the fingers release." Although Hailey is too young to play professionally, don't be surprised if one day she and her new arm are part of the Orioles' starting line-up!

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Just like Hailey, Isabella was born with an underdeveloped limb. Her parents also researched prosthetics only to find them financially prohibitive and developmentally insensitive. Isabella's case caught the attention of Stephen Davies, a fellow congenital amputee and member of Team UnLimbited.

Davies personally delivered Isabella's new arm. (He shot the above video, too, which briefly features his own 3D-printed left hand popping into frame.) The donation is part of a larger campaign by E-Nable to deliver prosthetic limbs to more than 1,000 children in need worldwide. If Isabella's reaction is any indication, they'll also be delivering countless smiles.

The Shape of Things to Come

As both of the preceding stories have shown, two of the most frequent obstacles for those

in need of prosthetics are the issues of cost and adaptability. As innovative as the new technologies may be, these two issues will often keep them out of reach of the people who need them most.

Joel Gibbard, a 25-year-old grad student born and raised in Great Britain as a congenital amputee, decided to design and build his own mechanical hand. He founded the company OpenBionics, which specializes in creating affordable, motorized 3D-printed limbs.

"We're using lower-cost motors than they have in high-end devices, so the overall strength is lower," says Gibbard. The average model produced by OpenBionics could cost around $5,000. That's considerably cheaper than industrial models, which cost as much as $95,000 apiece. With newly found support by Disney's TechStars Accelerator program, OpenBionics hopes to begin selling their models to the public some time next year.

Looking Forward

Technology is defined not by its invention, but by its use. Children adapt to new technologies and surroundings more quickly than adults. Somewhere in between, the human gift for innovation combines with natural development to ensure equal opportunities for everybody involved.

Piece by Piece: 3D Printing Implants

11. June 2015 10:26 by Steve Leigh in Technology News  //  Tags: , , ,   //   Comments (0)

We’ve mentioned before how the applications of 3D printing in the field of medical science have changed the way both doctors and patients think of surgery. Whether it’s creating missing limbs or growing new tissue from scratch, the technology continues to move closer and closer to levels of sophistication once only thought of as science fiction.

But even as strides are made with visibly noticeable attachments, such as limbs, it’s the parts that aren’t always obvious which can go unattended. Fortunately, there are pioneers in the field who are devoting their attention to those specific “overlooked” areas.

The Titanium Skull

Jessica Cussioli was fortunate. She was able to survive an automobile accident in her native Brazil, but needed extensive reconstructive surgery to rebuild her face. Even after that was completed, there was still a 12-centimeter piece of her skull that was missing, leaving her head disfigured. What’s worse, the type of prosthesis that would assist with her condition proved far too expensive.

Fortunately for Jessica, her parents were resourceful. After contacting doctors at UNICAMP, the doctors agreed that Jessica would be a perfect candidate for a custom-molded titanium implant, created using 3D printing.

Jessica-Cassioli-post-surgery.jpg
(via IFLScience)

After an eight-hour procedure, Jessica’s implant was declared a success. The material is light weight, yet durable. Jessica is expected to make a full recovery, at which point she plans to return to her studies.

Robo-Claw

Until recently, a common complaint about prostheses was that they were both physically cumbersome and cosmetically unattractive. What’s more, they were often only effective for the most rudimentary functions of the missing limb. For instance, a prosthetic arm and hand could hold simple items, but the simple act of turning a key would prove difficult.

Then came the HACKberry.

HACKberry.jpg
(via Gizmodo)

Created by the Japanese company exii, the 3D printed HACKberry is major step forward in prosthetic functionality. In addition to its sleek design, the prosthetic boasts enough articulation in the wrist and digits to grab small items, flip through book pages, and even tie shoes. In addition to that, the hardware is able to be updated and added upon as the technology improves.

Both of the above innovations serve as reminders that while nearly all prosthetics serve a necessary purpose – substituting that which was lost – there’s also a sense of familiarity to be considered. It isn’t simply a case of finding a missing piece, it’s also trying to get it to work as well its predecessor. It might not be the original, but engineers doing their best to make the next best thing.

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