What do you get when you fuse human biology with engineering and robotics? Answer: the new multidisciplinary field attracting the fascination of millions and the minds of thousands, biofabrication. Or as you might know it, 3D body part printing.
3D printing for medical purposes may sound like it’s something out of the sci-fi sequel to Frankenstein but rest assured; it’s a worthwhile reality that’s coming to an Australian hospital near you soon.
Biofabrication aims take a patient’s specific medical condition – whether it’s cancer or diabetes – and fix it by printing a cell, bone or organ in three dimensions and inserting it into the human body via surgery.
“When you start to envisage revolutionary personalised medicine treatments being enabled by 3D printing, you start to unleash the capability to conduct fundamental experiments we couldn’t do just a few years ago,” explains Professor Gordon Wallace, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science at the University of Wollongong (UOW).
“And by a few years ago, I mean two or three.”
The rate of application beyond the lab depends upon regulation, community acceptance and take-up by hospital doctors.
Prof Wallace predicts that in 2016, the number of patients receiving 3D printed surgical implants in hospitals around Australia is set to increase.
He attributes the rate of change to rapid advances in worldwide research, Australian government backing of the 3D printing industry, and the cost-effective price of customised medical 3D printers – around $30,000 each.
“If you were sitting down now to design a new hospital, one of the things you would be putting in there, as critical as putting an operating theatre in, would be a 3D bio-printing facility.”
Prof Wallace explains that in the next few years, experts will be able to prevent arthritis through 3D cartilage regeneration, potentially cure type 1 diabetes with islet cell transplants, print stem cells and even use biofabrication for epilepsy detection and control in the brain.
However, he says, the rate of application beyond the lab depends upon regulation, community acceptance and take-up by hospital doctors.
For this purpose, UOW has just run the first ever “101” online course on 3D printing and biofabrication, available to experts and laypeople alike.
Implants with 3D printed parts are considered last resorts but, regardless, the technology is life changing and can only improve as time continues.
Attracting more than 7,500 people worldwide, the course is based on the introductory part of UOW’s joint postgraduate course, and will be rolled out another four times in 2016.
“The online course really does highlight the key issues involved in biofabrication,” explains Malachy Maher, one of 40 students currently doing a Master of Philosophy in Biofabrication at UOW.
“We had very similar lecture content at the beginning of the masters course and now it’s online, available to a lot of people,” Mr Maher says.
“There’s no point bottling up your research and keeping it in. It’s important to share it with the community and keep everyone involved.”
One early medical adopter, Professor Peter Choong from St Vincent's Hospital, is making leaps and bounds in the clinical application of the technology.
In 2014, he surgically implanted a 3D printed heel in a cancer patient and very soon, he will surgically implant a pelvis.
“I’m also hoping to put in a 3D printed arm bone in a patient who has a growth that needs to be cut out,” the hospital’s department head of surgery adds.
Prof Choong acknowledges that implants with 3D printed parts are considered last resorts but, regardless, the technology is life changing and can only improve as time continues.
“In the past, it was not possible and patients had to suffer from the conditions that caused the disease.
“But 3D printing offers us an opportunity to perform some procedures we couldn’t do before, for example, to repair bones, soft tissue and organs, which were realms of fantasy in past.
“Technology, being what it is, will advance and allow dreams to be realised.”