Luc Besson’s 90’s action-comedy the Fifth Element featured a scene in which a superhuman being was rebuilt from a severed arm using technology resembling what we know today as 3D printing. I’m not saying the French writer-director is a prophet, but that new technology makes his fantastical vision seem much more achievable than the film’s first audiences imagined.
When 3D printing tech was first released a few years ago, we all got terribly excited for the first 5 minutes. Once that passed, we had to figure out what to do with it, other than use it to make scale models of stuff to impress our friends. It has since been used to build concrete houses for poor communities, and has also been a source of advancement in the medical field.
What Is 3D Printing?
If you have only ever heard about 3D printing, you may be wondering what it is. No, it has nothing to do with squinting at optical illusions until a hidden image appears. Although back in the day, those 3D images were rather amazing, you have to agree!
Instead, it is computer-controlled technology that fuses or otherwise joins together various materials to create a three-dimensional item. It has been used for military, food product manufacturing, clothing and apparel, vehicle design and construction, household DIY, and, of course, the medical industry.
3D Printing in Medicine
The use of 3D printing tech in the medical field has already resembled the reconstruction of Leeloo, the Fifth Element’s supreme being. It has already produced prosthetic limbs, as well as heart valves, blood vessels, and even bones.
The most recent success has been that of using it to produce finely-details models of CT and MRI scans. Each model is specific to the patient concerned, and should prove invaluable to not only diagnosis and treatment, but research as well.
In this case, printers concert the tomographic images produced by the scans into models comprised of cross-sectional slices. This makes it much easier for doctors and surgeons to spot causes for concern, such as abnormal growths. Checking the models can be done manually, or they can be put through a thresholding process that checks them automatically by using pixel colour.
3D representations of patients’ anatomy are certain to prove valuable, especially when patients present complicated cases, such as scarring and other effects of disease.
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Inspired to Help
The research that led to this ground breaking use of 3D printing was not a case of big pharma looking for another way to cash in. Instead, it was conducted by a MIT Media Lab Mediated Matter group graduate student.
Steven Keating set to work after a tumour the size of a baseball was removed from his brain. It was inspired by his own experience of using 3D-printed models of his scans as a way of understanding what he was dealing with, and what different treatments would mean for him. Rather than being helped by his attempt, he found it took too much time, and that the resulting models would be of no use in diagnosis.
After taking his idea back to the group, Keating found an ally in Ahmed Hosny, a researcher at the Wyss Institute. A new team incorporated dithered bitmaps that use black dots to show gradient. This cuts out imaging techniques used when creating 2D images, which speeds up the process and results in accurate models.
The Way Forward
With so much advancement in the field of medical 3D printing already, the future looks like it will be an exciting place, even if only for doctors. It may be only a matter of years before we see tech capable of reproducing muscle elasticity, permeability, and other properties.
After all, we also saw flying cars, household cleaning robots, and intergalactic holiday travel. Perhaps opera-singing aliens are also just around the corner?