Life-changing 3D printed medical devices

Written by Sam Mapungwana, Associate Director of Marketing, 21 October 2019

We work with many customers in the healthcare industry who are all involved in groundbreaking developments. One area that’s evolving rapidly is 3D printed medical devices. In fact, a report forecasts that the market for 3D printed medical devices and pharmaceuticals will be worth $6.1 billion by the year 2029. So, we decided to have a look at what’s happening in the space and created a list of a few creations that caught our eye.


1. Bioresorbable, drug-carrying, expandable stents 

3D printed stents.

3D printed stents. Image source: Carbon

A stent is a device surgically inserted into a blood vessel or any other internal duct to expand the vessel to prevent or alleviate a blockage. Traditionally, these devices are made from metal mesh and remain in the body permanently or until they’re removed via additional surgical intervention. Furthermore, they come in predetermined sizes, leaving it up to the physician to guess which size stent will be a good fit to keep the patient’s blood vessel open. This can be dangerous because stents that don’t fit well can move in the artery and require physicians to re-open the blocked stent or bypass it with a vascular graft. This is an expensive and risky procedure. Thankfully, 3D printed stents have been developed to try and improve the way this treatment is delivered, including being able to personalise the stent size to the patient. 

Researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago, US, have created 3D bioresorbable (naturally-dissolving) stents to provide life-saving support in the case of weak or clogged up arteries. Made of a citric-based polymer that’s flexible and antioxidant, the material is strong enough to ensure the stent supports a vessel’s expansion. The polymer can also host drugs, allowing the slow release of the drug at the implementation site, accelerating the healing process in the blood vessel walls. Unlike their metal predecessors, these 3D printed stents slowly dissolve and leave the body after the artery recovers. 

Now that we’ve covered 3D stents, let’s see how limbitless the 3D printing options for prosthetic devices are. 


2. Better, more affordable prosthetic limbs 

Nine-year-old South African student, Aphelele Gumede, enjoying his Spider-Man 3D prosthetic limb

Nine-year-old South African student, Aphelele Gumede, enjoying his Spider-Man 3D prosthetic limb. Image source: Mitchell Designs via 

A prosthetic device can have a significant impact on a person’s life from improving their mobility and ability to complete daily activities. Unfortunately, conventional prosthetics are expensive. According to Disabled World, an upper extremity device (arm) can range from  $3,000 to $30,000 and a lower extremity prosthesis (leg) can set you back up to $50,000! They also take weeks or even months to produce and aren’t always the most comfortable. Fortunately, 3D printed prosthetics are lending a helping hand.

In recent years, there’s been an inspiring wave of individuals and organisations using 3D printing to make affordable prosthetics, especially for children. With free, editable designs online, anyone with access to a 3D printer can create a customised prosthesis. If DIY isn’t your thing, a 3D printed hand can cost as little as $50 via e-NABLE, and an arm by Limbitless Solutions costs around $1,000. Along with being more affordable, 3D printed limbs have quicker turnaround times than conventional ones. Once the design has been approved, a prosthetic limb can be 3D printed in a day. 3D printing also allows for customisation to meet individual needs, comfort, preferences and functionality. 

From 3D printed prostheses that we can make better, quicker, and cheaper, let’s turn our eyes to the world’s first 3D printed cornea. 


3. 3D corneas bringing back the gift of sight

The researchers who developed the 3D-printed cornea, Dr Steve Swioklo (left) with Prof Che Connon (Newcastle University)

The researchers who developed the 3D-printed cornea, Dr Steve Swioklo (left) with Prof Che Connon (Newcastle University). Image source: Newcastle University.

The cornea is the eye’s clear, protective outer layer. It protects the eye from injury and infection and controls and focuses the entry of light into the eye. Sometimes people get corneal disease – a condition that can cause clouding, distortion, scarring and eventually blindness. The only option to restore vision in patients with a severely impaired corneal endothelial layer is a donated transplant. There’s a massive shortage of corneas available to transplant and an estimated 10 million people across the world need surgery to prevent corneal blindness. To help combat this, a team of scientists from Newcastle University has developed a 3D printed cornea. 

The researchers created a printable ‘bio-ink’ gel solution by using human corneal stromal cells (stem cells) from a healthy donor cornea and mixing them together with alginate and collagen. Using a simple low-cost 3D bio-printer, the bio-ink was successfully squeezed out in concentric circles to form the shape of a human cornea and took less than 10 minutes to print. By scaling up the techniques developed by this team, massive strides could be made in combating the corneal transplant deficit.


What does the future hold for the 3D printed medical devices industry?

Although we can’t predict what the future holds for the 3D printed medical devices industry, it’s an exciting space to be in and shows no signs of slowing down. From bioresorbable, drug-carrying, expandable stents to better, more affordable prosthetic limbs, and bio-ink corneas – we’re excited to see how this field evolves. If you’re active in this area and need to engage an expert, get in touch.


Need some primary insight to propel your project? We’d be happy to help. If you’re an expert, get in touch with us too


Topics: Industry insight