February 01, 2016

Advances in medical technology

A 3-D view

Advances in medical technology

You've been visiting with an orthopedic surgeon about the possibility of a hip joint replacement (prosthesis). But your stature isn't exactly average, and it's been a challenge to find a prosthesis that's the right size. As a result, your surgeon suggests scanning your own hip joint and using the image to print a new one to match it.

Sounds like science fiction, doesn't it? Three-dimensional printing — the ability to create a 3-D object from a 2-D image — is poised to transform how medicine is practiced in a number of different areas. With the ability to produce customized prostheses, duplicate expensive medical equipment and perhaps one day even synthesize functioning organs, 3-D printing — also known as additive manufacturing — is a big leap forward for personalized medicine.

How it works

The concept of 3-D printing is relatively simple. A computer-generated design sends detailed instructions to a printer, which turns the virtual design into a physical object by building it layer upon layer from the bottom up. For example, in the consumer and manufacturing world, specialized software can be used to design templates for printing toys and machine parts using plastic or metal "ink."

In medicine, digital imaging data from computerized tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to create models of different parts of the body. A CT scan of a hip joint, for example, can be used to create a physical model of it, reflecting all the angles...