The pace at which the 3D printing industry is developing is truly amazing. The range of applications available today is already very impressive and more and more emerge on an almost daily basis. Companies in the medical sector are among the early adopters of 3D printing, and lately we have seen improved and expanding dental applications such as Solidscape’s new 3D printing system for dental labs, 3D printing porcelain crowns, and aesthetic applications such as 3d printing soft tissue.
Some very interesting research that has emerged recently is focused on producing vaccines using a 3D printer. Geneticist Craig Venter is working towards a future where medicines and biological structures could be created in digital form, emailed to wherever they are needed in the world and eventually produced using local 3D printing technology.
Think of a highly contagious virus outbreak. The current means of stopping that would likely require research and manufacturing of a medicine that would then be produced in a pharmaceutical factory and distributed via traditional channels, which could take weeks or even months to arrive where it is desperately needed. With Venter’s proposed approach, the cure/vaccine, once developed, could then be emailed and manufactured locally using 3D printers.
Venter and his team have developed a way to digitise biological molecules into data that can be compiled as a computer file that would be readable by 3D printers. There is an early version of this being tested, and if found successful, it has the potential to take global healthcare to a new level.
The benefits of the new way of producing medicine using 3D printers would be substantial. It would transform the current system, which is highly centralized, into a more localised and flexible system. The easy sharing via email (and other means of internet) would reduce the medicine costs greatly, through cutting transportation costs. It would also enable access to vaccines for more people. Professionals working in the health sector could order medicine on-demand, and receive it instantly when needed. The current system creates a bottleneck in terms of getting enough vaccines to the point of need at the time it is needed.
As incredible — and hopeful — as all this sounds, it is important to understand that we are not there yet — this is research. 3D printing a biological molecule is still beyond the current capabilities of today’s 3D printers. Arranging molecules for medical purposes is an extremely demanding task that requires extreme precision — a minor mistake could cause a protein to change behaviour. Quality control would be one critical and essential factor for implementation.
Safety concerns would raise a new set of rules and regulations, which make in-home commercial bio-printers unlikely to happen. The same system could easily spread bioweapons or narcotics in disguise of medicine. In order for the new system to function, it would require its own fully secured network with strict regulation and security.
Another critical barrier that would need to be overcome is the need to address the IPO’s of pharmaceutical corporations, who spend fortunes developing the medicines. They would surely not be happy to spend the money on R&D and at the end of the process be left out of pocket with no return on their investment through production and distribution.
Again, this one is extremely interesting 3D printing application to follow. Not only from the point of using technology for making the world a better place to live in, but also in terms of the official rules and regulations that will need to evolve. IPO’s and 3D printing is becoming an increasingly hot topic and it will be interesting to see how governments react and legislate.
Venter spoke about his research at the WIRED Health Conference. Watch the FULL video here: