Innovations enabled by 3D printing are growing exponentially across multiple sectors. According to Sculpteo’s 4th annual State of 3D Printing survey, 70% of respondents increased their investments in 3D printing in 2017, versus 49% in 2016. As more investment flows into additive manufacturing technologies, the disruption will be felt strongly in healthcare, an industry with an immediate need for large amounts of differentiated materials, and sky high fixed costs.
Just this week, scientists have successfully 3D printed human corneas for the first time. Almost 5 million people suffer total blindness due to corneal scarring caused by burns, lacerations, abrasion or disease, and up to 10 million people worldwide require surgery to prevent corneal blindness from disease such as trachoma. While new corneas can be transplanted, supply of donor corneas is falling short of demand. Using a mix of stem cells from a healthy donor cornea with alginate and collagen, researchers have generated a solution, what the researchers called a “bio-ink”, that could be printed in a 3D printer in less than 10 minutes. Other 3D printed prosthetics, including spinal and ankle implants, as well as patient-specific facial implants for corrective surgeries, are also beginning to make their way onto the market.
Even the diversity of materials that 3D printers can work with, from titanium to sugar, is expanding its medicinal applications. Researchers at the University of Illinois have used isomalt – a sugar substitute derived from beets and commonly found in throat lozenges – to fortify organic scaffolds that will hold tissues in place as they mature into a full organ. After growing tissue around a printed sugar scaffold, the sugar would simply dissolve, leaving behind a self-sustaining organic structure. When the sugar dissolves, it leaves behind a series of inter-laced tubes and tunnels that can be used like blood vessels to transport nutrients or to create channels in certain medical devices.
3D printing in hospitals is becoming much more useful outside of the body as well, from printed medical models to complex software that allows medical professionals to plan and practice tricky surgeries before operating for real. GE Healthcare’s 3D printing software works seamlessly with GE Advantage Workstation systems, which are being used by hospitals around the world. When a CT scan is taken, the anatomy is then rendered as a 3D image using GE’s Volume Viewer software, a 3D imaging platform that combines data from sources like CT, MRI and X-ray. The software then converts the image file generated by the Volume Viewer and translates it into a 3D printable file within seconds. More than 100 hospitals have ordered the software, which can be used to 3D print models of any organ as well as bones and muscles.
Using printed models of a patient’s brain can help surgeons map out the best route for tumor removal, which is one of the most important stages of surgery – and it happens before they even make any incisions. When it comes to cosmetic procedures, like rhinoplasty, 3D digital images can be customized to create printed models of the proposed appearance of the new nose. Once the patient and surgeon agree on the “idealized outcome” of rhinoplasty, the digital images of the patient’s current appearance and simulated outcome are converted into 3D printed models. In the operating room, the surgeon can refer to the 3D-printed models as a “side-by-side reference,” helping to adhere to subtle changes occurring during the procedure.
One of the most essential uses for hospitals, however, could be securing their supplies of surgical equipment and other medical devices against the threat of supply chain disruptions that could drive up costs of delivery or, even worse, put lives at risk. New designs for 3D printed needles, inspired by honeybees, are already prepared to go to market. Made from a polymer blend, the advanced needles can decrease tissue damage while increasing precision.
Just this month, SABIC, a leading developer of 3D printed materials, released two new models of their healthcare-grade filaments made with the company’s resins. The materials are suitable for printing a wide variety of medical devices and customized 3D components including surgical instruments, single-use devices, casts and splints. The concept of printing pharmaceuticals in-house also raises a large opportunity for hospitals, and it is not impossible, considering some companies like CyclePharma are already printing customized pills for those with patients with difficulty swallowing.
While the advent of 3D printing doesn’t come for free, researchers from the University of California San Diego and Rady Children’s Hospital who used 3D printers to create planning models to practice ahead of surgery found that the models helped cut the time spent in surgery by an amount that translated into $2,700 in cost savings per surgery. Further, reduced surgical risk creates a huge upside for savings on external costs like legal fees if something were to go wrong. A 1-2% reduction in surgical complications due to surgical models could translate into millions of dollars of medical savings and eventual cost reimbursement by medical insurance companies.
Investors can gain access to 3D printing via the 3D Printing ETF (PRNT). We added Short Healthcare to MRP’s list of investment themes on October 16, 2017. Since then, the iShares US Healthcare Providers ETF (IHF) has returned 23% versus the S&P 500’s 7% over the same period. However, since headwinds remain strong for healthcare, and healthcare companies are typically adopters of 3D printing technology, not the developers, we continue to believe that healthcare will soon underperform the broader market.