3D Printed Medical Awesomeness

November 5th, 2013

3D printers are awesome. I have no doubt that they are going to transform manufacturing as radically as the combustion engine changes transportation. The printable gun, aka The Liberator, thrust 3D printing into the headlines. It freaked out a lot of gun grabbers because it made it obvious that the old paradigm of gun control was about to become technologically irrelevant. But that’s just one industry. Everything that’s manufactured, from furniture to wrist watches will be impacted by this explosion, and soon the regulation of everything will be as difficult to control as file sharing. So what about medicine?

Leon McCarthy was born without fingers on his left hand. His father, Paul was a man of modest means, and an inexpensive functional prosthetic hand is unimaginable in the current medical manufacturing paradigm. Ivan Owen has transcended that paradigm. Paul found a video online about a 3D printed prosthetic hand invented by Ivan, and even after customizing the design to fit his sons unique needs the whole project only cost him around $2,000 for the printer, and $10 in materials. I trust that the mega-corporations who charge tens of thousands of dollars for a typical prosthetic are taking notice, and eagerly lobbying their pocket Congress critters to put a stop to this, but there’d be virtually no way to enforce such regulations anyway, and in the mean time Leon gleefully calls himself a cyborg.

So what happens when the cost of medical devices drops dramatically? More people have access. Richard Van is a woodworker in South Africa, and he lost four fingers in a work accident. He set out customize a prosthetic using his own woodworking skills, but then he discovered a designer in Seattle who used a 3D printer. Together they designed a new hand for Richard with functioning fingers. When all was said and done, the bill amounted to about $150.

3D printing projects are not only digital, which is hard enough to regulate, but can be international, meaning the designer and manufacturer need not even be in the jurisdiction of whatever laws they try to pass.

So, let’s get serious. Making life more convenient for the handicapped is one thing. But what about life saving medical equipment? 20-month-old Kaiba Gionfriddo stopped breathing due to a condition called  tracheobrochomalacia, which caused part of his airway to collapse. His parents, April and Bryan panicked and doctors accustomed to the old paradigm said he wouldn’t survive. But doctors are the C.S. Mott Children’s hospital in Michigan quickly printed a splint made from a new experimental polymer. The splint will provide structure and aid proper growth in the airway. The polymer is designed to eventually be reabsorbed into Kaiba’s body. How awesome is that?

Not as awesome as this!

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An unnamed patient in Connecticut had 75% of his skull replaced by a custom implantmade by a 3D printer. You read that right. His skull! The replacement body part was designed and created at Oxford Performance Materials which hopes to help more than 6,000 people a year, including cancer patients, and car accident victims. “We see no part of the orthopedic industry being untouched by this,” company president Scott DeFelice said.

Now, the splint printers and skull printers both had clearance from the Food and Drug Administration to save these people’s lives. Because we all know people should ask the government for permission before they save people’s lives. These innovators are working for a compliant medical establishment that I’m certain hinders their work. But lets imagine the government cracks down and the FDA retracts it’s permission slip. The digital files already exist. A skull can be printed in Chile as certainly as it can be printed in Connecticut. And with price tags as low as these, it’ll probably be cheaper to travel than dump money into the government approved treatment.

But here’s why I’m excited about this. From here on every hurdle that the cry babies try to put in front of dangerous technologies they must immediately justify putting in front of life saving technologies. No longer are they taking the pistol out of the hand of the woman defending herself from a rapist, which is bad enough, if they go after the 3D printer they will have to take splint out of the hand of the doctor trying to save the life of an infant. A battle is brewing over the freedom to manufacture, it’s going to be hard for the prohibitionists to look into the camera and say that these people should die.

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About the Author: Davi Barker

In grade school Davi refused to recite the pledge of allegiance because he didn't understand what it meant. He was ordered to do as he was told. In college he spent hours scouring through the congressional record trying to understand this strange machine. That's where he discovered Dr. Ron Paul. In 2007 he joined the End The Fed movement and found a political home with the libertarians. The Declaration of Independence claims that the government derives its power “from the consent of the governed." He does not consent.