3D printing: potential to save and take life

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The world’s first gun produced by a 3D printing machine (Credit: HowStuffWorks.com)

By Eimear O’Neill

– Guest Writer

Three-dimensional printing has arrived and, like all new technologies it has potential for great good and bad. It could lead to the creation of new chemical compounds, drugs, medicines and medical devices to help the sick, but it could also be used to produce new, high tech weapons. Thus, this revolutionary new technology could both take lives and save them.

On the 5th of May of this year, an online organisation by the name of Defense Distributed published files that describe how to make the world’s first fully 3D printable gun. They called it the Liberator. Defense Distributed is a non-profit organisation that aims to “defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms as guaranteed by the United States Constitution … through facilitating global access to … knowledge related to the 3D printing of arms”. Their long-term impact aims to change the way people think about gun control and consumption. Proponents of tighter gun laws in America have expressed concern and, in an area such as 3D printing that is rapidly developing in recent years, many have questioned “why guns?”.

It is quite possible that the high-profile nature and the guaranteed publicity generation of creating a 3D printable gun advised Defense Distributed’s choice of object to develop. However, the potential applications of 3D printing are wide-ranging and diverse. The process is currently employed for many industrial and domestic uses and potential new uses include the creation of open-source scientific equipment, chemical compounds, biotechnology and medical applications and even use in the building and construction industry.

Saving lives

3D printing has recently been shown to have the potential to save lives. A baby’s life was saved when a device created by a 3D printer was used to help him to breathe. Six-week-old Kaiba Gionfriddo suffered from a rare condition called tracheobronchomalacia, a respiratory condition which causes the airway to collapse and can lead to death in severe cases. Collaboration between doctors and Prof. Scott Hollister, a biomedical engineer at the University of Michigan, led to the production of a splint which was implanted into Kaiba’s chest to hold his airway open and allow him to breathe. This tiny splint was produced using a 3D printer and replacing ink with a biodegradable material. Prof. Hollister described the ability to “build something a surgeon can use to save someone’s life” as the highlight of his career. Dr. Gleen Green of the department of paediatric otolaryngology at Michigan described the case as a “work of major accomplishment” and stated that Kaiba’s life would not have been saved without the device.

Dr. Green believes that the process used to build the airway splint can be adapted to build and reconstruct many different tissue structures. This belief is shared by Dr. Anthony Atala, an expert in the field of regenerative medicine, or the practice of restoring damaged tissue by using the body’s own healthy cells. In 2006, Dr. Atala was at the head of a team at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine that developed the first lab-grown organ, a bladder grown from the patient’s own cells. He is now working on what he sees as the donor system of the future – 3D printing of organs, replacing ink with human cells. This involves scanning of the patient’s own body and then using the information found to design a personalised, patient-specific, printable organ. This is extremely important at a time when the urgent need for healthy donor organs greatly outweighs the supply. It also counteracts the problem of rejection of transplanted organs as the printable organs are grown using the patient’s own cells.

Prof. Lee Cronin has big ideas about the potential to use 3D printing at a more molecular level, in the area of drug development and distribution. Cronin’s aims are ambitious: “what Apple did for music, I’d like to do for the discovery and distribution of prescription drugs”. His team at Glasgow University are investigating how to produce simple drugs such as ibuprofen with a 3D printer they call a “chemputer”, where ink is replaced by chemical reactants. This could conceivably allow medicine to be distributed globally and also allow medicine to be produced exactly where it is needed. Cronin believes it could remove the problem of ineffective counterfeit drugs that are becoming more widespread in the developing world. Pharmaceutical companies have expressed interest and Cronin hopes that grant-making organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports many public health initiatives, will be interested in the possibility of introducing such technology in developing countries.

Taking lives

The creation of the Liberator by Defense Distributed remains controversial. Many have expressed disappointment that it was the production of a dangerous weapon that has drummed up the most publicity, interest and hype about 3D printing so far. However, Eric S. Raymond, a well-respected open source software advocate, has endorsed Defense Distributed and praised its work, saying he approves of “any development that makes it more difficult for governments and criminals to monopolise the use of force” and describing the organisation as “friends of freedom”. He recognises the creation of the Liberator as a possible “major step in the right direction”. Hopefully, the development of products with a more positive purpose, such as the device which saved the life of six-week-old Kaiba, kidneys grown using a patient’s own cells and the quick and simple distribution of printable drugs will add more steps in this direction.

Eimear O’Neill is a PhD candidate at the TCD Institute of Neuroscience and the winner of the ‘2013 Speaking Science Writing Competition for Doctoral Candidates’.