3D Printing And The Medical Industry – Helping Children, Saving Lives

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Image of 3D printed prosthetic limbs created by Enabling The Future

Various topics in the 3D printing technology arena are getting a lot of press lately. Sometimes the press is good, sometimes it’s not so good. In this post I highlight some wonderful stories of how 3D printing is being used by medical professionals and inventors to change and, in some cases, save lives.

3D Printing Helping Children Lead Normal Lives

For me, one of the greatest stories of 3D printing and the medical industry is being written by Enabling the Future and their e-NABLE community, an open source, international group of volunteers, founded by Jen Owen, who are using 3D printing to make prosthetic hands and arms for children all over the world. Traditional prosthetic hands and limbs can costs tens of thousands of dollars making them only a dream for many families. The prosthetic devices provided by Enabling the Future cost about $1000 making them much more accessible to families in need.

The prosthetic hands and arms provided by Enabling the Future are printed in multiple colors and themes making them quite desirable to children. These prosthetic hands and arms transform their recipients from someone with a ‘condition’ into someone who has a really cool hand; enabling users to pick up a glass, write their name and throw and catch balls among other tasks that most of us take for granted.

Image of 3D printed prosthetic hands fabricated by Enabling The Future
Image courtesy Enabling the Future

So Many Stories

There are many success stories already playing out and many more being written by an international group of e-Nable volunteers in collaboration with Enabling the Future.

The story starts with Liam, a young South African boy, who, in 2012, was the first child to receive a 3D printed hand. Liam is one of the pioneering testers of prototype models and helped inspire the e-NABLE community of international volunteers. The e-NABLE movement has created thousands of free 3D printed prosthetic devices for children all over the world.

In another story young Alex, a super hero aficionado, was delivered a new 3D printed prosthetic arm by none other than Tony Stark himself.  Mr. Stark (Robert Downey Jr,) personally delivered Alex’s new arm in a customized Stark Industries container.

Mossa, an 18-year-old living in war torn Yemen, lost his hand to an explosive war remnant. The e-NABLE A den Chapter, founded by Abdulla Baobeid, 3D printed a prosthetic arm and hand. Mossa now uses his new arm to carry relatively large objects, open bottles, write his name and throw balls.

Limbitless Solutions

The Limbitless Solutions project started by Albert Manero in conjunction with Ivan Owen, co-inventor of the worlds first 3D printed hand, is making bionic arms for children. The myoelectric arms use leads attached to the skin to detect and convert muscle impulses into movement of the bionic arm.

In 2014, Dr. Albert Chi, Medical Director, Oregon Health Science University, Targeted Muscle Reinnervation Program, invited Limbitless Solutions to be part of Prosthetists Meets Printers Conference and is now working with them to create the first clinical trial of 3D printed arms. If the clinical trials lead to certification by the FDA, the 3D printed prosthesis may be covered by insurance.

It is estimated that less than 15% of those living with limb-loss have access to prosthetic care. Consider how impactful Limbitless Solutions’ FDA certification will be in opening up prosthetic care to the remaining 85%.

Get Involved

There are many more stories and many ways that you can get involved with the e-NABLE community. Small one-time or monthly donations can make a huge impact when multiplied by thousands of interested people like you. You can also start or join an existing e-NABLE chapter. The e-NABLE community has even made a collection of 3D printable assist devices free for download and fabrication.

Please visit the Enabling the Future website to learn how you can get involved.


3D Printing Success Story – One Couple’s Journey

The story of Michael Balzer and his wife Pamela Shavaun Scott illustrates how unyielding drive and 3D printing technology came together to literally save Pamela’s life.

Debilitating Condition – Unacceptable Diagnosis

Pamela had been suffering from debilitating headaches that were not responding to the migraine medicines she was prescribed. After much debate, she finally persuaded her doctor to order an MRI. Though the doctor was convinced that the MRI would do no good, it actually showed that Pamela had a very large tumor lodged behind her eye.

Pamela’s tumor was the most common type that forms in the head. Known as meningioma, and located in the membranes that surround the brain, her tumor was growing, compressing surrounding nerves and tissue, and causing her so much pain that she could not even sleep at night.

The original treatment plan recommended involved cutting into the skull, moving the brain and then removing the tumor. A very risky procedure at best and not acceptable to Pamela and Michael. No strangers to medical issues and unacceptable initial treatment options, Michael and Pamela took matters into their own hands.

Pioneering With Home 3D Printing

Michael, a software engineer and 3D printing enthusiast, utilized a free software package called InVesalius to build a 3D model of Pamela’s DICOM images. DICOM (Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine) is used by medial professionals to store and transmit medical images for diagnosis and treatment.

After uploading his 3D model to Sketchfab, a free platform that allows users to upload, share and display 3D models on the web, Michael was able to share them with neurosurgeons around the country. A neurosurgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center agreed to evaluate the use of a new, minimally invasive procedure to treat Pamela.

The new procedure involved accessing the tumor via an incision in Pamela’s eyelid and removing it, one small piece at a time, with a micro drill. This approach was, obviously, much more acceptable to Pamela and Michael.

To further aid the surgeons and help them plan the procedure, Michael adapted the 3D renderings he created of Pamela’s skull so that he could print full-scale models using his MakerBot Replicator 3D printer. MakerBot makes a series of 3D printers ranging in price from around $1300 – $6500. These printers are a bit on the high end but still accessible to home enthusiasts with somewhat larger budgets.

The process that Michael used in converting MRI data into a 3D printed models is being touted as the “new normal” to help explain diagnoses and plan procedures, according to Dr. Michael Patton, CEO of Medical Innovation Labs in Austin, Texas.

The story of Michael and Pamela is truly remarkable and inspiring and highlights one example of the breakthroughs being accomplished with the emerging technology of 3D printing.


Endless Possibilities

Image of a 3D printed heart model
Image: Giovanni Biglino, Despina Koniordou, Marisa Gasparini, Claudio Capelli, Lindsay-Kay Leaver, Sachin Khambadkone, Silvia Schievano, Andrew M. Taylor, Jo Wray. “Piloting the Use of Patient-Specific Cardiac Models as a Novel Tool to Facilitate Communication During Cinical Consultations ,” Pediatric Cardiology









In this post I’ve highlighted just two of the multitude of amazing things that 3D printing is enabling in the medical industry.

They’re also being done by home 3D printers and readily available software!

Think about that for a moment. In just a few short years, Enabling the Future has made thousands of prosthetic devices available worldwide and a husband & wife team essentially pioneered a new process of diagnosing and planning surgical procedures – all with home-based 3D printers.

What will the next decade bring?

What will you create?














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