3D printers are rewriting prosthetics production, scientific research

3D Printed hands.
3D Printed hands.
Mark Suarkeo, UCLA Rehabilitation Services
3D Printed hands.
A 3D printed hand being assembled.
Mark Suarkeo, UCLA Rehabilitation Services

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Seven-year-old Faith Lennox strapped on her new blue, pink and purple hand Tuesday for the first time. Her hand and forearm were amputated when she was an infant due to a birth complication and she learned to live without it.

Until now.

The 3D-printed robotic hand was created in 24 hours and cost $50, just one example of a larger movement going on in prosthetics and medicine in general.

The prosthetics that are being printed by 3D machines are made of polymer and look robotic. They're equipped with a pulley system that is manipulated by muscle and joint movement. For instance, if a child has a wrist but no hand, the wrist would work to control the hand. Faith Lennox will use her elbow to move the pulleys attached to her hand.

A volunteer movement to bring 3D prosthetics to children like Lennox and others who haven’t been able to afford traditional prostheses has been gaining speed across the country. It's called Enabling The Future and it helped connect Lennox with a printer in Southern California.

Prosthetics have historically been very expensive – running into the tens of thousands of dollars - depending on how complex they are.

Rick Riley, who is a prosthetist in Nevada, said 3D-printed limbs are the future.

The speed with which they are made and the low cost will make it easier for amputees to make decisions about what works for them, said Riley, who is also an amputee.

So instead of having to go back to their prosthetist to recast or to haggle with their insurance company, they can tweak the design themselves or choose what it will look like.

At UCLA Rehabilitation Services, Senior Prosthetist Mark Suarkeo said he’s researching printers and scanners for the center so his team can begin to produce 3D prosthetic limbs.

Suarkeo said the lower cost 3D-printed limbs provide a great opportunity to help underserved populations, especially kids, who outgrow expensive prosthesis very quickly.

Right now, prosthetic limbs made with 3D printers are usually hands and arms, he said, noting that legs are harder because they have to be strong enough to support the body. 

But that doesn’t mean those with leg prostheses are being left out - there is lot of 3D creation around fashionable and special order covers for the prosthetics that include fancy designs, chrome-plating and color.

Medical researchers have turned to 3D printing to solve more complex challenges. 

Specialists are working on growing organs using polymer scaffolds made by 3D printers. So far these not have grown into full organs, although some experts believe it is only a matter of time before they solve this puzzle.

Other researchers are using these machines to print layers of living cells in an attempt to create the framework for a kidney, in a process they call "bioprinting." That effort has also fallen short of success. 

3D printers are being put to other medical uses as well. A Nov. 2014 article in The New Yorker told of the case of a baby born with a rare condition that made his trachea so weak that it kept collapsing, making breathing very difficult. Researchers printed a biocompatible splint in the form of a tube that fit over the weak portion of the trachea, allowing him to breath without a ventilator. Eventually the boy's cells would grow over the tube and it would dissolve.