Immediate results and instant fulfillment are the hallmark of modern technology. However, even a century and more ago, the desire for speed and fulfillment was no less intensive. As Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, said, “The difficult is that which can be done immediately; the impossible that which takes a little longer.”
Even in the midst of advancing technology, a high-quality product achieved at dizzying speed, is often a source of wonderment. As British science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Falling into this wonder-inducing category is the solid-imaging process known as 3-D Printing, patented by American inventor from Colorado, Charles “Chuck” Hull, in 1986. 3D Printing is a revolutionary product process that allows everybody to become a potential manufacturer. In 1992, Hull created the world’s first Stereolithography (SLA) machine which turned out to be a game-changer in many fields.
One field where this invention has created a major impact, is the field of medicine. For instance, 3D printed life size models of human organs, help surgeons in virtual surgical planning. Recently, doctors at a medical center in Massachusetts, sought the assistance of 3D printing in the operating room. At the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, doctors realized that MRI and CAT scan machines, however advanced and sophisticated, can only produce flat-layered images. Chief thoracic surgeon at the hospital, Dr. Rose Gamin, wanted the replica organ models like she saw printed at the Intensive Care Unit of the Hospital. She sent scans to the bio-medical engineer of the hospital, who used software to transform the layered image into a 3D model made to scale, of the rib cage and lungs, to isolate the tumor to be surgically removed. The surgeon was able to get a real time idea of how to handle the surgery, before she even cut open the patient.
Medical research has extended to 3D printing of different parts of the body for different needs. For instance, Che Connon, a tissue engineer attached to the Institute of Genetic Medicine, at Newcastle University in UK, was one of the creators of an artificial cornea, printing a 3D replica of the thin protective film over the eye. They used human cells to print this most advanced artificial cornea to date. Says Connon, “It was tricky to find the right recipe for an ink that’s thin enough to squirt through a 3D printer’s nozzle.” The bio-ink had to be appropriately thin and stiff at the same time, to hold its shape as a 3D structure. Even though the artificial cornea is as yet not approved for use in human beings, the day may not be very far off.
Currently, damaged corneas in people are replaced with healthy corneas from donors who have died. The corneas are collected immediately after death and stored in sterile conditions in Eye Banks. Corneas are received from 82 countries in the world, the world’s largest donors being US and Sri Lanka. Today, there is a global shortage of corneal graft tissue, with just one cornea available for every 70 needed, with over half the world’s population having no access to corneal transplants. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 5 million people around the world are blind because of corneas scarred by infection, and with no corneal replacements.
Currently, Lasik is a popular method of laser treatment of the eye, for correction of various vision-related issues, and re-shaping the cornea. However, in the years to come, 3D printing will help each cornea donation to go a longer way. In stead of replacing a damaged cornea with a healthy one from a deceased donor, 3D Printing will enable scientists to grow enough cells from a donated cornea, to print 50 artificial corneas. If scientists are indeed able to perfect the technique of growing cornea cells in this manner, millions more of people around the world will benefit from the priceless gift of sight.
As Albert Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”