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’. 

Tapping Dublin’s Electronic Brain, Harnessing Ireland’s Tidal Potential

LISTEN: Tapping Dublin’s Electronic Brain, Harnessing Ireland’s Tidal Power

Tidal power is in its infancy worldwide, but its potential is now being looked at seriously in many countries including Ireland. Experts estimate that up to 10 per cent of Ireland’s entire electricity needs could be provided by tidal power. We discuss what is happening in the world of tidal power, at home and abroad, and how Ireland can realise its potential in this emerging field.

IMAGE: Irish company Openhydro is aiming to place tidal turbines on the seabed – as pictured above – that will be completely invisible from the surface. (Credit: Openhydro)

Guest: Dr Stephen Nash, tidal energy researcher at the department of civil engineering at NUI Galway.

Dublin’s quest to become the world’s smartest city continues with the launch of DUBlinked. The aim of this project is to harness freely available information into new services and products that make life easier for Dubliners, ensure the city runs more efficiently, and has better services – all while saving the taxpayer money too.  

Guest:  Dr Ronan Farrell, researcher at the Department of electronic engineering at NUI Maynooth, and co-ordinator of DUBlinked.

Broadcast on 103.2 Dublin City FM on 04/08/2011

To contact the show email:  sciencespinning@dublincityfm.ie

Cloud Computing; Living on Mars

Living on Mars will involve recycling of human waste and making use of the planet’s resources (Credit: NASA)

LISTEN HERE:  Cloud Computing, Living on Mars

Broadcast on 103.2 Dublin City FM, Science Spinning with Seán Duke, on 02/06/2011

To contact the show email: sciencespinning@dublincityfm.ie

The Future of Mobile ‘Apps’, Ireland’s Weather Disasters

Science Spinning: ‘The Show with an Irish Spin on Science’, Presented and Produced by Seán Duke

Broadcast on Dublin City FM, 13/01/2011

The Future of Mobile Apps, Ireland’s Weather Disasters

To contact the show email: sciencespinning@dublincityfm.ie

A ‘smartphone’ based defibrillator

Published in the Jan-Feb 2011 issue of Science Spin

Eighteen people die from cardiac arrest every day in Ireland, with two per week under the age of 35, and a whopping 70 per cent of those die outside hospital.

That’s according to figures from the Sudden Cardiac Death Support Group. This means there is a significant number of people that collapse from sudden cardiac arrest at home, on the street, playing football, or any number of places.

These people may have had a chance of survival if a defibrillator device was applied to them quickly to get their heart going again, but that wasn’t available. Therefore, the idea of two Belvedere College students, Owen Killian and Lucas Grange [both pictured here outside their school- Owen is on the right] to use a mobile phone as a defibrillator is a potentially life saving one.

The idea is that when someone collapses, a person – ideally with medical training – would arrive on the scene carrying their smartphone defibrillator. The first thing the smartphone user would do would be to attach a small peripheral device, a little larger than a matchbox in size, to their phone.

This device would have electrodes already attached and ready to go, and it would easily fit into a coat pocket, doctor’s bag, or someone’s briefcase. The operator would then attach pads to the person in trouble, and a special phone ‘app’ would be opened that would analyse the rhythm of the heart.

At the same time, a call could be made to the emergency services to inform them of the situation and ensure that they would arrive for backup if required. The phone then comes back with a reading which tells the operative if the heart rhythm is ‘shockable’ or not. If the answer is yes, the device applies the shock, and talks the user – if a non medical professional – through the use of CPR (cardio pulmonary resuscitation).

Owen Killian said that there are other AEDs (automated external defibrillator) on the market, but they are not light, with the lightest right now being 400g. The Belvedere lads say that their AED is much lighter than what is available right now, cheaper, simpler, more portable, and not designed just for doctors’ use.

The boys have ambitions to develop their AED into a real world commercial product, and they have got it as far as the ‘proof of concept’ stage just now. At the moment they are working on developing the parameters for the device to analyse heart rhythms that are shockable and not shockable.

The students are modest enough to state, meanwhile, that being lucky enough to be in a school with such great science facilities and teachers has helped greatly. “The reputation the science department has built up over the years of being an innovative, accessible and driven section of the school is greatly deserved,” said Owen.