Prosthetic 3D Printing Marks Medical Advance

November 30, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

3D printing has advanced past the stage of growing ears on mice. Some body parts are able to be printed up, implanted and function about as good as the original — including arms.

Five year old Hayley Fraser, from Scotland, was born without complete fingers on her left hand, so her parents went to American-based En-able, for help. Hayley is believed to be the first United Kingdom child to get a prosthetic hand made almost entirely from 3D printing.

In a procedure that takes a few days to finish, a canner, through a tablet computer, measures from multiple points. The dimensions are then sent to a 3D printer that prints out the arm. Building the arm one layer at a time, the system is controlled by a 12V actuator that allows for horizontal movement. This ability makes the mechanism more precise than the traditional ways of using plaster molds.

The Science

The science, called regenerative medicine, has already been successful in engineering skin, cartilage, bladders, urine tubes and blood vessels. The body parts, were manufactured in a lap, and successfully implanted in patients. The structures were able to get oxygen and nutrients from near by tissues until they developed their own blood vessels for supply.

The “holy grail” of regenerative medicine has always been to have the ability to engineer complex organs like the kidney, liver and heart. The organs are very dense and need the ability to tap into their own oxygen supply to ensure survivability. Building a scaffold of sorts with a full vasculature has steered scientists towards the idea of removing cells from donor organs and replacing them with a patient’s own cells.

Researches have already used scaffolds from rodents and pigs to engineer heart, liver and lung scaffolds. When re-populated with organ-specific cells, the organs have been able to produce some of the functions of original organs in the lab. Pits are used in the research because of the similarities to humans when it comes to organ structure and size.

3D Babies

Epoch Times Photo
3D printing can be used to print sonograms i.e. life size developing babies. These 3D sonograms are used to help blind expectant parents “see” their babies.


Anthony Atala and 3D Printing of Body Parts

Surgeon Anthony Atala demonstrates an early-stage experiment that could someday solve the organ-donor problem: a 3D printer that uses living cells to output a transplantable kidney. Using similar technology, Dr. Atala’s young patient Luke Massella received an engineered bladder 10 years ago; we meet him onstage.


Personalized Medicine

Researchers hope that by merging CAT and MRI scans to visualize a surgery, plan the procedure and using 3D printing technology, better patient outcomes will be achieved. Some observers estimate the 3D printing technology represents a $7 billion revenue opportunity.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already approved several 3D printed medical implants and the process has already been used in over 100,000 cases where an individualized 3D print is placed in the body or the mouth to guide the surgeon

4D Printing

While medical advances in 3D printing are happening almost everyday, 4D printing is already here.

4D printing sounds like a catch phrase to some, but researchers are saying that t4D printing is actually 1D better than 3D printing. The goal of 4D printing is to make objects out of a 3D printer that will be able to reconfigure themselves into useful shapes without outside assistance.

Flat objects made with 3D printing, using normal plastic combined with smart material, were able to turn themselves into a cube without outside intervention.

According to researchers, in the future, 4D printing will be able to turn out such things as:


  1. Smart car bodies which “heal” automatically after an accident
  2. Smart soldier camouflage uniforms which change to match the surroundings
  3. Pipes that contract and expand to move water without pumps
  4. Building material that builds itself into a structure

These ideas are still in the future, but they could become an everyday reality.

Ten years ago, who would have thought about the idea of a little five year old girl getting a printed, prosthetic hand?