Will medical 3D printing advance nanotechnology?

The world's first 3D-printed vertebrae was implanted in a Chordoma cancer patient. Credit: Ralph Mobbs

About four years ago we speculated that the advent of personal 3D printing for computers might accelerate progress toward atomically precise manufacturing. A few months later we noted the extension of 3D printing from microscale into nanoscale resolution (about 100 nm—still three orders of magnitude from atomic precision, and still using only one material). Since then progress in the technology, often referred to as “additive manufacturing”, has been impressive, especially in medical applications, even to the point of progressing toward 3D printing of tissues and organs. One especially striking example of this progress is described by Steve Smith at Medical Daily “World’s First 3D-Printed Vertebrae Saves Man With Chordoma Cancer From Becoming A Quadriplegic“:

What a time it is for 3D printing in health care. Over the past year alone, doctors have successfully separated conjoined twins, given a cancer patient a titanium rib cage, and created muscle, bone, and ears from 3D-printing materials. This list continues to grow; in December 2015, a man in his 60s received the first 3D-printed vertebrae. Without it, he would have become fully paralyzed. …

Dr. Ralph Mobbs, an Australian neurosurgeon, took charge of treating the tumor, and relied on 3D printers and Australian medical device manufacturer Anatomics. In a combined effort, they were able to create exact replicas of the two vertebrae made out of titanium, according to Mashable. Anatomics even created entire replicas of Josevski’s spinal anatomy for doctors to conduct practice runs before the surgery.

“3D printing of body parts is the next phase of individualized health care,” Mobbs told The ABC Australia. “To restore bones, joints, [and] organs with this type of technology really is super exciting. [H]ere is our opportunity to really take it out there and to keep pushing the boundaries on the whole 3D-printed body part business.” …

This amazing medical accomplishment, and the others cited by Smith in the first paragraph quoted above, neither advances the resolution of 3D printing nor greatly increases the complexity of the product printed. (In the case of 3D-printed tissues the complexity is provided by seeding the structure with intact and functional human cells provided by biotechnology.) But one can hope that a rapidly growing base of important applications of 3D printing will eventually lead to improvements in resolution and complexity. Perhaps one could imagine an intermediate stage on the way to nanofactories for general purpose high throughput atomically precise manufacturing in which nanoscale atomically precise devices are used as inks in 3D printers to build macroscale products composed in large part of complex arrays of atomically precise machinery.
—James Lewis, PhD

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