This three-year-old Chinese girl was fitted with a 3D-printed skull after hers grew to four times the normal size Image Credit: Shutterstock
The health-care industry is starting to capitalise on 3D printing, and fast.
While the technology has been around for a while, the medical industry only began experimenting with it a little over a decade ago. 
In a short time 3D medical technology — or biotechnology — has come a long way.
From prosthetic limbs and various surgical devices made with plastics and metals, to using cells to print human organs, experiments in this industry are progressing rapidly.
Between 2008 and 2011, the number of scientific papers referencing bioprinting nearly tripled.
According to the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo held in New York last year, advances in 3D printing will make it possible to construct human tissue in a lab, implant it in a patient and watch it grow.
Last year a Chinese toddler whose head had grown to four times the normal size became the first person in the world to get a 3D-printed skull, in a life-saving operation.
Scientists believe in a matter of a few years we will see special 3D printers that create artificial hearts. 
Given its enormous potential to save lives, 3D medical printing or bioprinting is the buzzword of modern health care in the UAE — so much so the Arab Health Congress 2016 will address the field of 3D printing as the chief theme for its 41st conference this week.
Experts will focus on 3D printing for surgical applications, drug discovery and vascularisation, as well as the legal and ethical debates surrounding the technology.
For specialists in the UAE, medical 3D printing will enable a new future in health care and the way patients across the emirates will be treated in years to come. Advances in the field are not uncommon in the UAE, which has ploughed money into revolutionary breakthroughs in the next generation of health care. 
Shaikh Zayed Institute for Paediatric Surgical Innovation at the Children’s National Medical Centre in Washington DC, founded in 2010 through a $150-million (Dh551 million) gift from the Government of Abu Dhabi, is one of the first to make a big push into medical 3D printing technology. 
Kolaleh Eskandanian, the institute’s executive director, says the application of bioprinters in medicine offers the potential to take 3D printing to the next level with personalised medical solutions for children. 
“Our team is working on a research and development project to develop a new generation of tissue-engineered vascular grafts using 3D printing technology,” she says, citing just one example of how the centre is redefining what is possible in surgery through innovative, integrated research. 
“Over the long term, the result of this work will have a significant impact on the design and fabrication of other more complex cardiovascular structures for implantation, positively impacting the health of children and adults in the region and throughout the world.”
Over the past few years the centre has made a series of breakthroughs, including the use of 3D printing technology to create models for cardiac surgeries and other complex cases, Eskandanian says.
“For example, this year we used the technology to prepare for a follow-up procedure on a patient we successfully treated several years ago with a rare condition — a baby born with his heart outside of his body,” she says. “We were also among the first to use 3D printing to develop a model of conjoined twins in preparation for their successful separation surgery.”
3D printing is driving major innovations in medicine and in paediatrics in particular, she adds. “There is a real opportunity to personalise medicine for children because they have medical device needs that are significantly different due to growth and development considerations. The introduction of 3D printable biomaterials has created the potential for personalised, patient-specific medical devices that will adjust to tissue growth over time.”
The use of 3D-printed practice organs — made-to-measure from MRI scans of patients — also promises to become an important surgical tool.
Such technology allows for creating an intricately realistic surgical model of a patient’s body part to practice on before the actual operation. This helps surgeons decide on the best approach for surgery.
This is being shown at Abu Dhabi’s Shaikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC) hospital which, as of December, is now employing 3D medical image-based engineering to rehearse complex operations.
The SKMC Paediatric Cardiac Programme works with a Belgian-based technology provider to deliver patient-specific treatments, with the company’s 3D-printed models aiding the diagnostics of surgery.
Preoperative planning sessions typically involve several medical professionals consulting each another, often by phone from Abu Dhabi, Brussels, and Kuala Lumpur.
“Preoperative planning will never be the same,” says Dr Laszlo Kiraly, Consultant and Division Head for paediatric cardiac surgery at SKMC, which is managed by Cleveland Clinic and is a part of Abu Dhabi Health Services. 
“We now completely rehearse what we want to do, and we do it in a pressure-free environment that allows us to draw on global experience.
“This 3D engineering has made our team not only more confident but also more effective, as we are now speeding surgical times and saving lives.”
The SKMC’s surgeons performed the first paediatric cardiac surgery assisted by 3D-printed models in the UAE last June, says Dr Alawi Al Shaikh  Ali, Consultant Cardiologist and Cardiac Electrophysiologist. 
The patient was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a condition where the left ventricle of the heart remains underdeveloped and unable to pump blood to the body. HLHS can be fatal without surgical intervention.
After an initial surgery in the first few weeks after the baby was born, she underwent a second stage of surgery at five months old, with surgeons using life-saving 3D technology in preparation.
“The life-size, printed 3D true model of the heart is used to plan intricate, detailed steps of the operation, and this translates into improved patient safety and outcomes,” says Dr Al Shaikh Ali, chair of the hospital’s Cardiac Sciences Institute.
“This novel technology has additional potential for teaching young doctors and medical students.”
At Arab Health, experts will focus on the surgical applications for 3D printing for drug discovery, bioprinting and vascularisation, as well as look at the legal and ethical debates surrounding the technology.
“The conference will focus on a new technology called body-on-a-chip, which has the ability to print mini hearts, livers and blood vessels on a chip,” says Simon Page, Managing Director of Informa Life Sciences Exhibitions, organiser of Arab Health. 
“This could potentially provide more accurate testing for new drugs and eradicate the need for animal testing.”
3D-printed products to get cheaper
Japanese researchers have developed a new technology that can cut the cost of producing 3D-printed human organ models by a third. 
“[This] allows for production of 3D human organ models at costs as low as one third compared to those for currently available technology,” the study says.
Researchers at University of Tsukuba in conjunction with Dai Nippon Printing developed the technique, which helps produce organ models with internal structures such as blood vessels easier to see. 
— with input from WAM and IANS