Custom-Made 3D Innovations are Saving Lives (and Are Just Really Cool Too)

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From guitars to cars to body parts, it seems the only question when it comes to 3D printing these days is, what can it NOT do? Gone are the days where the only objects these machines could craft were small plastic forks—3D printing is now leading the way in new medical treatments, training, and technologies.

Bended Knee: Athletes are hard on their joints. At the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center, sports medicine surgeons like Mathew Pombo, MD are using 3D printers to design custom knee replacements for elite athletes, both during their careers and after retirement. “The unfortunate reality is that all athletes transition from their prime into the aging athlete category, where you can see the impact from a lifetime of sports and activity,” says Pombo, who has performed about 500 customized 3D knee replacements at his Johns Creek Hospital office. “The patient-specific 3D knee implant is ideal for an aging athlete who suffers from an arthritic knee and is considering surgery.”

Breathe easy: Making patients’ lives easier at home is the aim of Steve Goudy, MD director of the Division of Pediatric Otolaryngology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and associate professor at Emory’s School of Medicine, who is using 3D printers to create medical devices that patients can take with them. One of his current projects—a collaboration between Emory, Georgia Tech, and GCMI—is working with prospective parents to create a better infant nasal suction devices. “As a parent, I remember nights where my kids could not breathe, eat, and so on; and I could not sleep because they could not breathe,” says Goudy. “All parents want to give their kids the best medical attention possible. I think this device allows them to be more self-sufficient at home and has a direct and immediate positive impact.”

Heart repair: Tissues and cells are the inks that Michael E. Davis, PhD associate professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Children’s Heart Research and Outcomes (HeRO) Center, is using in his lab. “We are printing patient-specific heart valves and heart patches for pediatric patients,” he says. “Children are often treated using repurposed adult medicines or alternative, often less effective treatment methods. For example, doctors often transplant a less important heart valve in the child to replace the defective one, and subsequently replace the transplanted valve with a mechanical or animal valve.” This method has many drawbacks, he says, such as requiring the child to take antirejection medications and to have subsequent surgeries to replace the initial valve since it does not grow as the child ages. Davis and his team are working to develop child-sized valves using the patient’s own valve cells using Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells technology. “We want to fix the patient, using the patient, within the patient,” says Davis.

Wound care: Stitches and staples are effective at closing wounds, but they can also be invasive and painful, and leave visible scars. Felmont Eaves, MD professor of surgery in the Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Emory, and director of the Emory Aesthetic Center, has spent the six years using 3D printing to transform the way surface lesions and wounds are treated. “We created a very dynamic and flexible device that will pull a wound together and relieve its tension,” he says. “3D printing allowed us to cost-effectively make hundreds of models and prototypes to perfect the dimensions, shape, and thickness of our device design.”