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McWilliams School of Biomedical Informatics

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The Future (and Present) of 3D Printing

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

Not too long ago, 3D printers were bright, shiny inventions that captivated the public eye, printing working toys and mechanical components in bright, primary colors. Their cost made them almost prohibitive for most to own, and their functionality wasn’t well understood by the public.

These days, despite the fact that the technology is still relatively new, 3D printing is quickly becoming more ubiquitous. Many public high schools boast one or more 3D printers. Manufacturers use them to increase efficiency. Movie props and sets are increasingly tapping into the capabilities of 3D printers, which are even taking hold as a consumer good as their price declines and they become more accessible as household items.

All of that is not to say that 3D printing is becoming old hat. While the initial magic may have worn off, the technology behind 3D printing continues to hold incredible promise for the field of medical informatics.

In fact, it may represent one of the most tangible intersections of data and technology today. By replacing 3D printer cartridges with biological ink, 3D printing has the potential to print organs, thereby shortening transplant wait times, and by incorporating stem cells into the ink, organs and tissues can be made specifically for each patient, reducing likelihood of rejection by the body.

Biomedical Informatics and 3D Printing

3D printers rely on data. No matter what task a printer is set to do, it cannot achieve it without the proper specifications. The technology is useless if it does not have the proper information, usually derived from an MRI or CT scan.

To print a working heart valve, or the cartilage that makes up an ear, for example, the computer needs to understand exactly what is expected of it. A heart valve that is too large or too small won’t work properly, and a misprint could be dangerous.

Organs and tissue aren’t the only medical applications of 3D printing; earlier this year, Korean researchers created a micro drug and cell carrier with this technology to deliver immunosuppressant drugs in animal models.

The vital information the printer needs comes from the patients themselves. This is where biomedical informatics really shines. Through information from data provided by informaticians, scientists, EHRs and doctors, technology like 3D printing becomes applicable.

These machines will need to interpret and understand the individualistic needs of a single patient, while also drawing on data from similar patients with similar needs. Here, the power of EHRs and HealthIT unite with the practical, applicable technology.

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