3D printing headAdvances in medical technology have made it possible to interpret x-rays from half way around the world, perform surgery through robots and diagnose dermatological conditions via Skype. Today we are on the cusp of further developments that will allow medical technicians to use 3D printers to generate medical devices, prosthetic limbs, and body parts and organs. While the technology is moving forward rapidly, the societal, ethical and legal debates are only beginning and will need to catch up quickly.

Additives manufacturing or process, a.k.a. 3D printing, provides a method for an object designed on a computer to be “printed” in plastic in a three-dimensional form. I read about this technology in a New York Times story about a new way to manufacture guns to get them past airport security. While this concept is certainly scary, there are obvious potential benefits from this technology in many fields, including the possibility of one of the greatest impacts on the medical community in history.

3D printing technology enables the customization of materials such as dental implants or dentures and joints and bones. When replacing a knee or hip, precise measurements are taken to generate a new joint that contours exactly to the patient’s body. 3D printing technology is also a less costly way to create prosthetic limbs. Recently, a boy in Georgia received a Star Wars Storm Trooper prosthetic arm through 3D printing.

Physicians have implanted human tissue generated by 3D printing technology in the form of ears and facial prosthetics using the patients’ DNA. Progress is being made in generating vital organs with this technology, and, if successful, rejection rates should sharply decline and the organ donor crisis could be eliminated. Of course, we may never see these benefits in our lifetime.

While there has yet to be a study on the long-term effects or benefits of using 3D technology in this way, one can envision faster recovery times and reduced hospital stays, which also reduce the risk of post-operative complications such as the formation of blood clots and infection.

However, there are risks with every medical innovation. Generating organs requires the collaboration of researchers, manufacturers, computer technologists, software engineers and physicians. Liability for organ malfunction would arguably be shared among those who participate in its design, manufacture and placement, creating a scenario with multi-professional liability exposures: product, engineering and medical. Of course, there is also the potential for intellectual property liability.

For example, obtaining the patient’s consent to the manufacture of a custom device or organ can be complex. In addition to understanding the typical benefits and risks associated with surgery, patients must also be told of the risks in the event the product fails or malfunctions.

It is nearly certain that government regulations will be enacted in this area that could limit the manner in which such devices or materials are manufactured, distributed and used. We can also expect that philosophical and ethical discussions will be sparked about generating human parts from DNA through a computer – perhaps similar to the stem cell research debate. For now, we can only hope that advances in medical technology continue, even with the risk that there will be some failures. We can only hope that the law will evolve and that any societal bumps in the road can be resolved to allow these advances to improve the lives of many.