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3-D Printing Lends Doctors A Hand, Building Tailor-Made Body Parts


That's the sound of another 3-D technology, that's increasingly being used in medicine, 3-D printing. Doctors are now using 3-D printers to make replacement body parts, among other things. The printer we're hearing is at the Food and Drug Administration offices, outside Washington D.C. This is an area they are starting to regulate. So NPR's Rob Stein went and got a little tour of the FDA lab.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Is that white, plastic thing, below the nozzle there - is that what's being made?

STEVE POLLACK: That's the object that's being built. And so you can see what looks like the line from a weedwacker. It's the plastic...

BLOCK: And Rob Stein joins us to talk about this now. Rob, the printer that we were hearing there is in a lab, where they're evaluating medical devices, including replacement body parts made with 3-D printers. And this is where I have a really hard time wrapping my mind around this story. Explain how a 3-D printer actually works.

STEIN: Oh sure, Melissa. So I think you're right. When most people think about a printer, they think about your typical ink printer, which squirts out ink onto to print words or pictures. Well, 3-D printers is basically the same idea, except instead of ink it squirts out something else, like plastic that's been melted into a liquid. And it squirts it out in a very precise pattern, that's determined by a computer, layer by layer. So it squirts out one layer and then another layer on top and so on and so forth, until it's created a very complex three-dimensional structure. Here's how Steve Pollack at the FDA explained it to me.

POLLACK: You can take any object that you can create inside the computer, either by designing it or by capturing a three-dimensional representation of the object by scanning - either the exterior of it or using medical imaging, like X-ray or MRI. You can then take that three-dimensional rendition of the object and create it with the 3-D printer.

BLOCK: OK, so how are doctors using the technology? What are some of the medical applications that they found?

STEIN: There are actually a lot of medical applications. Now, at the moment, most of them are considered experimental, but some are already helping patients. You know, for example, I did a story recently about doctors in Michigan, who are using 3-D printing to create tiny customized, what they call, splints to help open up the windpipes of babies who are dying because they can't breathe. They were born with defective windpipes. But that's just one example. 3-D printing's also been used to build part of a jaw for patient in France, to patch broken skulls and even to rebuild the pelvis of a man, whose pelvis was destroyed by bone cancer. And what you can do with 3-D printing is you can tailor it to the individual patient.

BLOCK: And when they're using 3-D printing to create replacement body parts, they're not just using plastic or metal as the key ingredients here, right?

STEIN: That's right. Some researchers have started using 3-D printers with cells, human cells. These are cells that are donated from one patient to the other. Sometimes they're even using embryonic stem cells. And they've done this to create skin for burn victims and even blood vessels for people who have damaged blood vessels. Some scientists have started to use this to create human ears and noses and even very primitive organs that are being used for drug testing, but someday could be implanted into patients.

BLOCK: Now, is safety the area where the FDA comes in, try to figure out how safe this is?

STEIN: Yes, this raises all sorts of questions for the FDA, as you could imagine. This is really brand new stuff. And they're trying to figure out what questions to even ask. So they've set up this special lab, where they're testing this technology, themselves. They're using it to test the devices that are being produced. And the key question is, you know, how far can you push this technology and still make things that are safe and reliable?

BLOCK: Fascinating stuff. NPR Health Correspondent, Rob Stein. Rob, thanks very much.

STEIN: Oh, sure, nice to be here Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.