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Imagine 3D printing your own leg with the click of a button. It sounds like science fiction, but with advancements in 3D printing, a DIY body part could be just around the corner.
Prosthetic limbs have already helped boost the confidence and independence of people with limb loss or limb deficiency around the globe by allowing them to do the everyday things we take for granted – like pick up a cup with either hand, hang out the washing with ease, or give loved ones a big, warm hug with two arms.
Getting fitted with a prosthetic arm or leg in the past has often come with a long wait time and a huge price tag to match. Fortunately, organisations such as the Enable Community Foundation (ECF) are revolutionising the industry by using 3D printing technology to deliver prosthetic hands and arms for around US$50 (compared to the cost of a traditional prosthetic which ranges from US$5,000 to $50,000). And the time it takes to print a 3D hand? In some cases, just 12 hours.
Spurring this all along is 3D scanning technology – which uses lasers to scan the body, transmitting 3D images to a computer in real time. This allows prosthetics to be modelled and replicated from human limbs to deliver a more natural shape, fit and appearance.
Unlike traditional prostheses, 3D prosthetics offer flexibility in design, meaning it's now possible for people to create a personalised 3D printed prosthetic arm or leg that reflects their style and personality. Who wouldn't want to design their own unique prosthetic limb or have a superhero-themed prosthetic?
Researchers in Spain have already developed a 3D printer that produces human skin. How does that even work, you ask? Think of the cartridges in your home printer and imagine that, instead of coloured ink, they are filled with 'bio-ink' made up of proteins, cells and biological elements that fuse together to create skin tissue.
This cool technology will prove invaluable for burns victims needing skin transplants, and could even do away with cosmetic testing on animals – as product tests could instead be ethically performed on 3D printed skin. For 3D prosthetic limbs, this could also mean that they not only function more like a human arm or leg, but really look and feel like one too.
And then there are 3D printed bodies – of a sort. Corpses for hands-on training for medical school students aren't easily come by – and they aren't cheap. Each cadaver can set a university back $6,000 to $12,000, which includes refrigeration, managing the lab and embalming. A Melbourne-based team turned this traditional teaching practice on its head with their 3D printed anatomy kit, complete with tiny and intricate parts like fine veins and nerve clusters. Medical schools can now order a limitless supply of entire bodies, heads, necks and limbs online at a fraction of the cost – and with no need for storage rooms.
So, will completely custom-made body parts that could provide extra hand grip for a rock climber, or ultimate leg flexibility for a ballet dancer be the next evolution in 3D prosthetics?
By the looks of it, we won't have to wait too long to find out; but in the meantime, another technological advance in prosthetics has come from outer-space. New implants developed from NASA technology is revolutionising breast reconstruction. Read more about this ground-breaking implant.