(WJLA) - Layer-by-layer, 3D printers are building up staggering potential in the medical field.
A team at the University of Louisville is working on printing a functioning, “bioficial” heart, and Wake Forest scientists are printing skin tissue for burn victims.
Meanwhile, Manchester Metropolitan University researchers are printing prosthetic eyes, and University of Texas El Paso scientists are working on printing custom implants for cancer patients in need of breast reconstruction.
In some cases, 3D printers are already saving lives. University of Michigan doctors printed a splint to put in a boy’s esophagus after a genetic defect caused his airway to collapse, suffocating him. He is now thriving.
At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, a 3D printing lab creates all kinds of things – from shoulder parts to prosthetic ear molds to titanium cranial palates for soldiers wounded in IED blasts.
"We can go from pre-surgical models, to implant guides, to actual implants," says Director of Services, Peter Liacouris.
"We can pretty much design something any way we want to," says Captain Jerry Grant, U.S. Navy Service Chief with the 3D medical applications Center.
The lab printed these titanium “shorty feet” for Nick Thom, as they’re easier to maneuver than full prosthetics.
"I'm able to put my wheelchair in my car, I'm able to do the yardwork on my own," says Thom, Lance Corporal with the Marine Corps.
And the lab also prints custom devices for amputees, like this titanium sleeve that hooks onto Chris Walker’s steering wheel.
"It's kind of nerve-wracking learning how to drive without arms...basically with that it's on there, I don't have to worry about it," says 30-year-old Walker, an Army Staff Sergeant.
And this special fishing pole, which allows 25-year-old Army specialist Ken Doyle to hold the pole and use the hook at the same time.
"I have a son and we haven't been out fishing yet," he says.
Doctors say that this is just the launching point for 3D printers, and that their true potential has yet to be realized:
"It just opens up a whole new creative world," says lead prosthetist David Beachler.