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3D printing prosthetics is changing lives

The possibility of wanting an object and printing it in the comfort of home is very appealing. With the advance of technology, that opportunity is not that far away from happening. 3D printing is a reality. Not only can we print objects like furniture and clothes, but it is also possible to print things that can change someone’s life. 3D printing prosthetics has helped many people and animals worldwide, rehabilitating them to a better life.

Generally, when 3D printing is mentioned, our minds take us directly to thinking about objects. 3D printed chairs, vases, even cars. And they are all solid possibilities when it comes to additive manufacturing. However, 3D printing has reached such an advanced moment in history that medicine is benefitting from it. Among mechanical engineers, architects, and designers, medical scientists have made great results using technology to their favor, and they have a very strong history together.

Technology and medicine

Medicine and technology had always walked along in science, as technology enables medicine to sharpen its knowledge and techniques. Of course, they have walked their own paths, such as da Vinci and his advanced knowledge on the human body, even before the existence of magnetic resonance imaging to precisely describe human organs. Or, still, when technology wasn’t an option and “doctors” were pretty much shamans and magical beings, and they used herbs and faith to cure their patients. However, from when they were walking side by side, technology has helped medicine. Their union made from small advances, like adhesive bandaging, to greater studies and solutions alike complex machines and tools.

For instance, think of how vaccines changed our reality as a medical revolution. The mortality from diseases such as cholera was at a peak, and we did not have a ready solution. Registers from China, and other Asian and African regions, showed a slow-paced way to vaccines already. However, it became a huge breakthrough when Edward Jenner used cowpox material to create a vaccine for smallpox. Louis Pasteur’s vaccine for rabies in 1885 had a rapid response to the advance of vaccines that saved many from cholera, plague, typhoid, tuberculosis, and many more. Even though it was essential to have a deep knowledge of diseases and microorganisms, technology was crucial for this medical kind of pharmaceuticals.

Medicine is still benefitting from technology, currently. Technology is changing healthcare in many ways. Healthcare devices are more complex and precise, and it is starting to become smaller over time, making many of them portable. There are portable ultrasounds and other equipment that can be carried to poor small communities to take exams or do small procedures and save human lives.

And that kind of technology is not only for doctors and healthcare professionals. People can monitor their health through apps on their phones. There are apps to track sleep patterns. Others count the number of calories taken in a day or period, there are apps even for heart rate monitoring. And that data collected can be sent to a doctor by a tap of a finger. Think of how that made medicine more accessible and engaging.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, technology has been crucial to society and medicine. Patients can monitor their symptoms, make quick searches on the web for more information, and get in touch with a doctor or a hospital for some guidance. It also affects mental healthcare by allowing consults with psychologists and psychiatrists on videoconferences to handle social distancing and other problems during this difficult time in history.

Another way technology and medicine are joining forces to help society are by using 3D technology. This kind of technology brings a new horizon for medicine. For doctors, augmented reality usage has been a way to study anatomy and its instances without the need for an actual body. Nurses and technicians also have some help. It makes it easier to find veins in their patients, making the experience better for both with minor accident possibilities. Wasn’t it bad when the nurse had an accident with our vein, and it was ripped? Virtual reality has also been the subject of studies in medicine. It helps patients who are going through pain to lessen it by using virtual reality equipment to address their minds to peaceful settings.

From 3D virtual reality to 3D printing, technology has made a huge revolution in medicine. And it might be one of the biggest yet. 3D modeling has enabled doctors and scientists to develop methods of creating skin and organs for research. By using a biopolymer made from human cells, medical engineers are creating human body parts as experiments. For example, medical engineering has created a mold that can receive printed human cells to organize them with a shape – noses, and ears. The cells behave much like stem cells, and they reorganize to fit the mold as skin cells. Then, when the mold is no longer needed, a nose or an ear is created. Studies indicate that those noses and ears can develop nerves and veins with time, and has been a success up to this date.

3D printing prosthetics

Furthermore, there is also an example of a human organ completely 3D printed. Not long ago, scientists presented a fully printed heart with all of its parts, such as arteries and veins. Even though that is as big as a rabbit heart, it was printed with current human cells, which is a huge step for science. It indicates that soon enough, the possibility of printing functioning human organs will be real, which will help hundreds of thousands on the list waiting for a transplant.

Though 3D printing is a promising feature for transplants, much work is already being done by that kind of technology. 3D printing prosthetics for people who have lost a body part is already happening. Worldwide, it has been possible to 3D print a hand, an arm, or a leg. And it has changed many lives.

3D printing prosthetics and a worldwide solution

A prosthesis is an artificial instrument that replaces a missing body part. The loss of that part may come from many ways, like an injury, disease, or a condition from birth. When that kind of loss happens, the amputee goes through rehabilitation coordinated primarily by a physiatrist, as well as a team consisting of nurses, psychiatrists, and more. If they can afford it, and choose to, they can also wear a prosthetic limb coordinated by a prosthetic.

The earlier prosthetic body part mention was circa 3000 BC by ancient Egyptians on Horus’s myth, when the God had his eye plucked out by Seth in a battle for the throne. It was later restored by Thoth through magic, becoming a symbol of protection and healing. Ancient Egyptians were likewise pioneers on prosthetics, as a wooden toe was found on a body dated by circa 1000 BC. However, the first prosthetic found by archeologists was an eye likely made of paste and gold, buried with a woman in ancient Iran, dated by around 3000 – 2800 BC.

While Ancient Egypt had already developed a wooden toe prosthetic, the first documented prosthetic hand user was Marcus Sergius. He was a Roman general during the Second Punic war. Described by Pliny the Elder, Marcus Sergius wore a hand made of iron, to which his shield was attached so he could fight in the war. Another believed user of a prosthetic iron hand was Götz von Berlichingen, a German mercenary, and poet. Curiously enough, there are mentions of people wearing weapons as a prosthetic, such as Henri de Tondi, reportedly wearing a hook as a hand, and an Italian man buried with a knife as a prosthetic hand.

During the centuries, prosthetics became more adaptable and comfortable for their wearers. Ambroise Paré developed an above the knee prosthetic, a peg leg, and a foot prosthetic with an adjustable harness, knee lock control, and fixed position. For many users, the peg leg was more comfortable for wearing, allowing them to walk even 30 miles. And at the end of World War II, the National Academy of Sciences advocated for better research and prosthesis development.

As technology advanced, prosthesis became better for the amputee, with the creation of non-locking below the knee prosthesis, steel knee joint controlled by catgut tendons, better amputation techniques, suction sockets, and much more. To this day, some prosthetics work with myoelectric signals that receive a stimulus by the amputee’s body and recognize it as a limb movement. It is possible to create a 3D model of the stump of the residual limb, which helps create sockets that are more comfortable and functional to the amputee.

However, helping people around the globe that are missing a prosthetic limb to adapt to a new lifestyle can be very expensive. And that is where 3D printing becomes a turning key to prosthetics.

3D printing prosthetics can be cheap, comfortable, and beautiful.

CAD software is a technology that allows medical engineers to develop designs of missing limbs. They can help prosthetics develop models and designs that can be 3D printed, even fitting the amputee as a glove. Using 3D scanning technology, they can create designs that actually takes into consideration the stump to make it more comfortable and functional prosthetics. They can even make customizable prosthetic limbs to the amputee. Printing a limb can be very affordable, reducing the cost to less than a hundred dollars, which is very little compared to a commonly made limb with similar functionalities. They can be made of PLA, a type of plastic made of biopolymer, as much as they can be made of stronger material, like titanium. 3D printing a limb is a comfortable, cheaper, and a rapid option to poorer communities and countries that can not afford a better prosthetic.

Many projects have come up with the idea of 3D printing prosthetics. One of them is an international project called e-Nable. It was born when Ivan Owen created a prototype of a hand for cosplay in 2011. The prototype was made of materials attached to his fingers, creating a huge functional hand triggered by chords and strings. His video showcasing his prosthetic hand’s functionality had inspired a carpenter in South Africa to ask for help as he lost his right hand’s fingers due to a woodworking accident. The carpenter, Richard, had discovered a single prosthetic finger would cost ten hundred thousand dollars back in 2011. He tried to develop his own but thought Ivan would have the expertise to help him out. With a plastic mold of the carpenter’s hand, Ivan was able to work on his prototype.

3D printings prosthetics have come a long way.

As the media started picking up their progress, more people started to share their stories and necessities. That is how Ivan and Richard got to know Liam, a South African child who missed his fringers since he was born from Amniotic Band Syndrome. As he had never had fingers before, he had learned how to do things without them already. In 2012, Ivan and Richard started working on their prototype for Liam, having Ivan’s cosplay prototype as a model. They came up with a prosthetic made of aluminum bar stock, screws, copper tubing, rivets, thermoplastics, and some fishing line. Liam was able to pick up objects for the first time in forever.

Knowing Liam would need to change his prosthetic over the years as he grew up, Ivan started to learn 3D modeling to develop a better way to keep up with Liam’s growth. Ivan was able to get a donation of two 3D printers, allowing him to design the files and send them to Richard by e-mail. Richard would print the prototypes and hand them to Liam to test them. Instead of making a profit from the results, both Richard and Ivan decided to do an open-source project. They made the designs available to whoever had a 3D printer and could use it to benefit someone in need.

By 2014, e-Nable became a group of people around the globe that was up to helping those who could not afford a prosthetic. They became a bridge between designers, printers, and families of people needing a prosthetic hand. Throughout 2014, e-Nable exploded with designs and volunteers worldwide, from parents trying to help their children to volunteers who could print the models and assemble it. By the end of 2015, e-Nable produced the first low-cost myoelectric version of their prosthetic hand. Seven years after helping little Liam out of nothing, they have helped around seven thousand people worldwide, from kids to adults, in over a hundred countries. And that is just one of many stories, as e-Nable inspires a lot of people to start their own projects. It is a part of a whole group of businesses 3D printing prosthetics and making them accessible for those who need them.

3D printing for animals

3D printing prosthetics can be lifechanging not only for humans but to our animal friends too. It is more common than expected that animals suffer from incidents that cost them a limb or a body part. It may be from birth, road accidents, or even human cruelty; they often need help to recover from a lost limb. 3D printing prosthetics have been helping so many people, why not lend a hand to our buddies?

There have been some successful – and emotional – examples of prosthetics that brought animals a better life. Seemore is a sea turtle that got struck by a boat, being largely damaged from the accident. Its shell was broken so badly it was a problem to her survival. She could not dive anymore, as a bubble had formed underneath her shell, keeping her from going underwater. That can be called “Bubble Butt Syndrom,” something that some humans think to be fun to have. Adding weights to help her was not an option: beyond being lost because of saltwater, rocks, and other reasons, it was very uncomfortable for Seemore. So, they chose to 3D printing a prosthetic for her. It was a very challenging project, as they had to think of a way of making comfortable and effective pieces of shell. Those prosthetic parts had to survive salt water, rocks, other sea creatures, and Seemore herself. After many tests, Seemore can finally safely dive again.

3D printing prosthetics

Hiss Majesty is a Caiman lizard from an aquarium in Chicago who had lost his leg and foot due to cancer. While patiently waiting, Hiss had to go through many fittings and modelings. There was a difficulty in coming up with a prosthetic that would fit a lizard’s life. The last prosthetic made for him was made of silicone and lightweight plastic. It was made to be as flexible and natural as its normal movement could be, a promising study to mimic his natural life.

It is important to notice that, as humans, sometimes animals can be in pain when missing a limb. That is the case of Bagpipes, the penguin. Bagpipes was involved in a fishing line incident, losing a leg due to it back in 2007. After being rescued and treated, Bagpipes would use his stump, beak, and little wings to get out of the pool and do other activities, damaging the little stump. His keeper informed that, as they did not have an option for the penguin, they would create prosthesis made of beer bottle holders to help secure what was left of his left leg. After ten years of struggling to live, Bagpipes finally had his prosthetic, a little left leg, so he could stand and swim without weighting on body parts not designed to do so. After many prototypes – and a lot of patience and training -, Bagpipes finally had his prosthetic limb printed according to his needs.

Tieta was the subject of human cruelty, causing her to lose her beak. This beautiful toucan was mutilated by animal smugglers and was finally rescued. The unfortunate toucan was doing her best to survive by throwing food into the air and trying to grab it. Tieta had difficult and long healing but was very well taken care of. The project of 3D printing prosthetics beaks to help her was coordinated by three Brazilian universities. The prosthesis was made of plastic, and it was covered with nail polish and sealed with a polymer made from castor oil plant. According to the project leader, although Tieta was not eating fruits yet, ignoring her prosthetic beak, she grabbed cockroaches and maggots right away. Unfortunately, Tieta will never be able to go back to the wild again. However, her future children will be released in the wild as soon as they can survive on their own.

SolidFace and 3D printing

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