It’s been a few years now since we’ve started hearing about the promise of 3D printing for medical applications. We’ve seen some great advances in 3D-Printed prosthetics and implants for surgeries such as knee and hip replacements. Surgeons are also now using 3D printing to create patient-specific surgical guides and tools. 3D printing is also having a dramatic impact on dentistry.
While these cases are all great, they are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of 3D applications. As 3D printers start to become ubiquitous, we will see the cost of printing drop dramatically, thereby increasing the number of relevant applications.
Numerous companies have developed prototypes for 3D printed orthopedic casts, but we still treat broken bones with typical fiberglass or plaster molds. Why is this, when the technology to create 3D printed casts has existed for years already? For example, the 3D-printed Cortex Exoskeleton was first presented in 2013, and is durable, lightweight, waterproof, allows access to the skin, and reduces itching and smelling.
And then there was the Osteoid Medical cast, designed by Turkish student Deniz Karasahin. The Osteoid took technology and with their cast to a new level by adding an attachable LIPUS bone stimulator. Studies showed that a single 20 minute daily session with this system promised to reduce the healing process up to 38% and increase the heal rate up to 80% in non-union fractures.
In order to function, the LIPUS ultrasound probes need to be placed above the injured area with direct skin contact. This requirement was not possible with patients using standard medical casts, but thanks to the ventilation holes available on 3D printed medical casts, the bone stimulator probes can be placed directly over the injured area.
With people suffering over 6 million fractures each year in the US alone, this is a large market to serve. It’s not just the 3D printer that’s the barrier though, it’s the scanning system to make the necessary measurements, and the software/hardware to develop the appropriate 3D models that need printing.
XKELET’s website states that they have an app coming soon to the app store. They list 4 monthly pricing options for providers, with a range of services from simply creating patient profiles and conducting scans, to adding photos and comments, getting cloud access, and the ability to export scans into 3D model compatible print files (.stl and .obj).
Other players on the 3D cast space include Mexican start-up MediPrint who invented the NovaCast, another customfit, 3D plastic cast system. The NovaCast, like the others discussed is also waterproof, light-weight, and less prone to itching and smelling.
There is no doubt that 3D printed casts will revolutionize how we heal broken bones, making treatments faster, and more comfortable. The biggest question now then, is when will these tools be readily available?