3D printing is the current technology darling. Becoming more and more cost-effective, it can be used to make toys, and now, it even has medical applications. This technology is currently being used to make:
- Tissues with blood vessels
- Inexpensive prosthetic parts
- Custom-made organ sensors
- Medical models (including models of cancerous tumors)
- Heart valves
- Ear cartilage
- Medical equipment (useful for poverty-stricken areas with limited access to medical equipment)
- Synthetic skin
(see 12 things we can 3D print in medicine right now). The materials used in 3D printing include plastic, metal, wax and ceramic.
But how can it help for pregnancy and the delivery of healthy babies? Read on….
Diagnostic and Therapeutic Uses for 3D Printing
Until now, most diagnostic testing has included fetal ultrasounds and MRIs. However, finding limitations in those scans, doctors in Michigan have developed and used 3D printing to help diagnose fetal deformities; in this case, facial deformities. Published in the October issue of the journal Pediatrics, doctors were concerned about the ability to diagnose deformities that cause airway obstructions.
There, doctors used ultrasound and determined that airway obstruction was a potential concern. They used fetal MRI and a computer to model the fetal airway, and to create that model with a 3D printer. In the case studied, the doctors determined that the airway was not obstructed by any mass, and the delivery of the baby confirmed that diagnosis. Though born with a cleft lip and palate deformity, the baby did not require any airway intervention at birth. Had the model revealed problems, the doctors would have been prepared with appropriate experts and equipment at delivery.
In Colorado, doctors at Children’s Hospital use 3D printing to help treat a specific type of spina bifida(myelomeningocele). Spina bifida is a condition where babies are born with an opening in the spine. For those with Myelomeningocele, surgery can be performed while the baby is in the womb. However, there is a limited window to perform the surgery, and it must be done as quickly as possible. That’s where 3D printing comes in: doctors can get a better idea of exactly how large the opening in the spine is, and can get a good feel for how the surgery must proceed before a single incision is performed. They can have correctly-sized patches or membranes ready before the surgery begins.
The technology is only going to improve with time, and as doctors become more creative with solutions, 3D printing is going to be used as a method to treat countless medical problems faced by babies, both within the womb and outside the womb.