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When many people think of 3D printing, they typically think of some high-tech science fiction device that can almost magically make things appear – or they think of it as little more than a new way to make cheap tchotchkes like keychains or phone cases.

The reality is that 3D printing is taking over many different industries – including the medical industry – to make personalized, and often complex, devices that may eventually lead to new treatments for deadly diseases like mesothelioma.

What Is 3D Printing?

In its most basic form, 3D printing is a broad name for a number of different, though similar, manufacturing techniques. It’s called 3D printing, because like a standard printer, the 3D printing devices add material by “printing” it. Only instead of printing ink on a page, the 3D printers will print the item molecule-by-molecule, layer-by-layer, until the object is completely made.

The advantage of 3D printing over various existing forms of manufacturing is that it is much easier to make personalized devices or to even change designs on the fly. Prototypes can be designed, printed, tweaked, re-designed, and re-printed in much less time than it would normally take. In addition to allowing new ideas to be brought to the healthcare market faster, 3D printing can drastically cut down costs associated with such research and development.

However, the real impact is with the this personalization that 3D printing allows. Using customized devices and treatments that are designed for a specific individual’s body provides a much more personalized approach to medicine than has ever been available before in the history of humankind.

Medical Uses of 3D Printing

One of the earliest uses of 3D printing in the medical community was by orthopedic surgeons. By using materials that slowly dissolved over time, orthopedists were able to create devices that would allow bones to heal naturally, but which did not have to then be removed surgically. As the device disintegrated, the material would be carried away by the body’s natural cleaning system.

More recently, a patient in Spain received an entire new sternum. After suffering from chest wall sarcoma, a new titanium sternum was printed using a 3D device. Doctors used CT scans to customize the sternum to fit precisely within the patient’s chest.

This level of personalized 3D printing opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Scientists are already experimenting with printing organs, and one day far down the road it might even be possible to print things new, customized lungs for those who have them removed due to deadly cancers like mesothelioma or lung cancer.

The Future of 3D Printing

It’s hard to see exactly where 3D printing can take us. Although some techniques have been around for a decade or two, we’re still only now discovering the true potential of using 3D-printed devices in a medical contexts.

Even so, while these pursuits are still in the distant future, it’s important to understand where emerging technology like 3D printing can help design new experimental treatments and other ways of fighting cancer and other diseases and conditions. Each new discovery leads to more potential survivors.