Aging in the Era of 3D Printing (and Bioprinting)
This post is inspired by my recent presentation at a Silicon Vikings event “Aging in the Era of Digital Health”.
Aging. Yes. Ugh.
This topic can be more profound, controversial, and philosophical to most than technical, but since we are a technical forum with a highly practical audience, I would share some thoughts focusing on the simpler technical aspects by asking and answering the following questions:
- What goals are we trying to achieve in managing an aging population with the help of 3D printing/bioprinting?
These goals can be summarized (Figure 1) as elongating of life span, improving quality of life, and last but not the least reduce or at least contain the cost to society while achieving the first two goals. These three goals are interdependent.
In the history of U.S. healthcare at least, although technologies have effectively achieved miracles in attaining the first two goals, the cost of healthcare has skyrocketed very much because our population now has many more options to defy many life tragedies. This will not be a sustainable model going forward in human history, containing cost while bringing in new technology should be equally important in future healthcare innovations.
In addition to creating new products that can elongate life and improve life quality, 3D printing has large potential to reduce cost to society by its innate technical advantages over conventional manufacture:
- Mass customization
- Complete digital process, therefore easily transferrable and modifiable
- Reduction in production cost
- Efficient material/waste management
Figure 1. Goals for Aging 2.0
2. What are we doing in 3D printing/ bioprinting to achieve these goals?
While 3D printing (or additive manufacture) is a 30-year-old concept, it is only in recent decade, it is considered a major potential player that can revolutionize the future of healthcare, and of course, managing a large growing aging population. There are four main areas of application with this technology for the aging population (Figure 2):
- External assistive device — Devices like exoskeleton, hearing aids, prosthetic have taking over the media lately mainly because the regulatory landscape is simpler and the potential reduction in cost is large.
- Implantable device/ Implants — By 2012, at least twenty-five 3D printed implants have been FDA approved. Premature failure of orthopedic implants has been a major hurdle in taking care of the aging arthritic population. Longer lasting, personalized implants in theory will reduce the overall cost to society in orthopedic management of the elderlies. One step further, the potential of embedding electronic devices/sensor into customized 3d printed implants will open up a new territory for health data collection and management.
- Personalized pharmacy — A 3D printed pill can take full advantage by incorporating information on geometry, compound release profile, and patient-specific data into a single pill. In the age of poly-pharmacy, manufacturing such new generation of pills will reduce complication and improve compliance.
- Bio-printing and regenerative medicine for either direct tissue repair or organ replacement. There are developing technologies in creating bioprinters that can repair high grade burn injury (Link). More notable, larger bioprinting companies like Organovo has contracted with L’Oreal recently to revolutionize the R&D process of large pharmaceutical companies by increasing efficiency and decreasing animal testing. The concept of bioprinting can be partially understood by understanding 3D printing. However, there are large differences between the two technologies. While bioprinting occasionally use similar digital manufacture process to produce scaffold for tissue engineering, it also relies on many other areas of biotechnology such as stem cell technology. It is possible that regenerating a new functional organ may eventually be completely independent of additive manufacture process in the future.
In a word, it seems 3D printing will likely stay as part of our future healthcare, and a large part of our future heathcare will be caring for an aging population.