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Can Additive Manufacturing Improve Healthcare Diagnostic Technology?

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Additive Manufacturing in Healthcare

Additive manufacturing, with its diverse applications in multiple industries, ranges from creating fuel nozzles for flight engines to repairing burner heads for gas turbines. It is renowned for its durability, lightweight features, geometric optimization capabilities, and reduced repair time, along with other competitive advantages.

In healthcare, it has established a substantial presence. Notably, the history of additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has been intertwined with medical sciences for many decades.

But before we delve deeper into the potential of additive manufacturing in healthcare diagnostic technology, let's first have a brief overview of additive manufacturing. We'll explore its definition and understand its critical role in the evolution of medical sciences.

Additive Manufacturing and Its History in Medical Sciences

The ASTM Society, earlier known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, defines additive manufacturing as “a process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing methodologies”

The field of medical sciences has been leveraging 3D printing since the late 1990s and early 2000s. It helped produce dental implants and custom prosthetics. These were products that required patient-specific customization and could not be produced in large volumes. 3D printing helped meet these criteria.

3D printing also helped the field of orthopedics by helping orthopedic surgeons create a structure that specifically matched and mimicked a patient's physiological features. Earlier, such patients had no other options than feeling content with ‘one size fits all' implants. From implants and prosthetics, the next step that 3D printing took was geared toward organic mimetic devices.

In the early 2000s, Boston Children's Hospital's team of researchers leveraged ‘scaffolding,' a construction method that facilitated the hand-building of replacement bladders from collagen and synthetic polymer. However, this method was time-consuming and not easily reproducible. It was also an expensive approach to organ building. But finally, additive manufacturing came onto the scene to help solve this problem.

Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine researchers eventually developed machines capable of consistently printing organs and tissues for clinical trials. Following this advancement, another group of Brazilian researchers furthered the progress by successfully bioprinting organoids. These organoids were able to perform all functions of the human liver, including building proteins, storing vitamins, and secreting bile. However, these miniature livers were not yet viable as transplanted replacements for actual human livers.

At this point, while additive manufacturing or 3D printing continued to find value in the field of applied medical sciences, its application remained majorly limited to clinical trials and lab-based tests.

Naturally, it came to the mind of the researchers and physicians involved to leverage additive manufacturing in improving healthcare diagnostic technology, which commands a significant market size worldwide.

Click here for the list of best 3D bioprinting stocks.

The Global Market of Healthcare Diagnostic Technology

The healthcare diagnostic technology market has been in an expansion mode. This growth is underscored by recent research and a survey carried out by Deloitte, revealing a significant increase in the number of US healthcare consumers using diagnostic technology for a variety of purposes from 2018 to 2022.

Specifically, the percentage of consumers employing wearables, apps, digital assistants, and smart devices to measure fitness and health-improvement goals jumped from 42% in 2018 to 49% in 2022. Additionally, the proportion of people using these technologies to monitor health issues also rose, moving from 27% in 2018 to 34% in 2022.

Not only have adoption numbers spiked, but Healthcare Diagnostic Technology has also seen significantly improved satisfaction levels among consumers. Among those using these devices, 78% recognized a positive impact on their behavior. Overall, 85% of consumers expressed comfort in using diagnostic tests to assess their health and health risks.

The consequence of improved levels of customer satisfaction has positively influenced investor and industry interest in healthcare diagnostic technology. In the first half of 2021, investors injected nearly US$15 billion into 372 digital healthcare deals, a substantial increase compared to a decade ago, when the numbers were confined to less than 100 deals and only US$1.1 billion in investments.

Echoing this positive industry interest in healthcare diagnostic technology, the subsegment of additive manufacturing applications also saw notable advancements. A prime example of this is the development of on-the-spot 3D-printed tests by McGill University researchers.

Lab-on-a-Chip: A 3D-Printed Breakthrough in Healthcare Diagnostic Technology

McGill University researchers have invented a ‘lab on a chip' diagnostic technology that could be game-changing. The chip can be made through 3D printing within 30 minutes.

Professor David Juncker, Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at McGill and senior author of the study, said the technology would help “individuals, researchers, and industries to explore new possibilities and applications in a more cost-effective and user-friendly manner.”

The innovation in its applied form can help scale up and expedite diagnostic testing by equipping healthcare professionals with the scope and ability to “create tailored solutions for specific needs right at the point of care.”

How does Lab-on-a-Chip Work?

The researchers developed capillary chips with the potential to function as miniature laboratories. Unlike computer microprocessors, these capillary chips are single-use and operate without an external power source. The process is facilitated by a simple paper strip that utilizes capillary action, similar to how paper towels absorb liquid spills on a kitchen table.

In this method, peripherals are not required, as is the case in traditional diagnostics. The capillary chips used in this method are 3D-printable and can be used for a range of tests, including COVID-19 antibody quantification.

3D Printing for Cost-Efficient Disease Detection Methods

MIT researchers have come up with another additive manufacturing or 3D printing-driven solution to create cheap and accurate disease-detection tools. The researchers, in this case, leverage 3D printing to produce self-heating microfluidic devices.

Microfluidics refers to the use of miniature machines that can manipulate fluids and facilitate chemical reactions. The technology is seen as a potential game changer as it can detect diseases in tiny samples of blood or fluids.

Microfluidics is already in use in the field of diagnosis. However, they often require a complicated and expensive fabrication process, which is hard to scale up.

The MIT team's solution makes use of multi-material 3D printing to create self-heating microfluidic devices. These devices come with inbuilt heating elements.

The process requires a single and inexpensive manufacturing process. And the technology is highly customizable with the low-cost fabrication process requiring only around US$2 worth of materials to come up with a readily usable microfluidic.

With continued research underway in this field, many companies have decided to take additive manufacturing beyond the scope of laboratories and make it usable for large-scale usage. We will now look at some such companies and their solutions.

1. Allevi

Allevi, a company known for its bioprinting solutions in 3D tissue engineering, organ-on-chip research, drug testing, biomaterial development, and regenerative medicine, claims to serve hundreds of labs worldwide. Beyond this, it also offers a comprehensive range of additive manufacturing products, enhancing the field of healthcare and diagnosis. Its array of products includes bioprinting software, bioinks, additives, cells, reagents, and consumables.

Notably, Allevi produces some of the most technologically advanced bioprinters. Its Allevi 3 bioprinters are specifically designed and optimized for research in diverse areas such as tissue engineering, materials science, regenerative medicine, disease modeling, 3D culture, microphysiological systems, drug delivery, and more. Additionally, the company provides services like custom bioprints for various projects, including cell-free scaffolds, organ-on-a-chip, vasculature prints, and multi-material prints.

finviz dynamic chart for  DDD

Allevi is now a part of 3D Systems Corporation (NYSE:DDD). In 2022, the company reported full-year revenue of $538,031,000, marking a 12.6% decrease from the 2021 revenue of $615,639,000. Additionally, it recorded a net loss of $122,711,000, which translates to a diluted loss per share of $0.96 and a diluted non-GAAP loss per share of $0.23 for the year 2022.

2. EOS

EOS provides a wide range of 3D printing solutions for medical technology, catering to both customized and optimized production paradigms. The company's industrial 3D printing solutions for orthoses and prostheses enable manufacturers to adhere to stringent quality and certification guidelines while maintaining individual design freedom and managing costs.

In the field of dental technology, EOS's 3D printing solutions assist laboratories and service providers in delivering consistently high-quality products. Additionally, EOS 3D printing technology is adept at creating a diverse array of surface structures. This capability is particularly beneficial for processes like osseointegration, facilitating the integration between living bone tissue and the surface of bone implants. EOS's 3D printing technology also plays a crucial role in optimizing components for laboratory equipment and diagnostic imaging apparatus.

It benefits service providers with tool-free production that helps reduce assembly costs. The solutions come with flexible design and functional integration properties. Moreover, EOS 3D printing technology also speeds up the development cycles and reduces the time-to-market period.

Transworld Systems acquired EOS for an undisclosed amount in December 2021, which is a privately-held company headquartered out of Wilmington, Delaware, United States.

3. GE Additive 

GE Additive helps apply additive manufacturing in the field of medical sciences with product-based solutions and 3D printing machines. Its EBM process for acetabular cups replaces traditional coatings with 3-dimensional lattice structures, improving initial fixation and allowing for faster fusion and bone in-growth.

Its lattice structures are designed for a clinically optimized pore size of 650 microns. GE additives also create certified, high-performance powders for the orthopedic industry with high sphericity, low porosities, minimal satellite content, and best-in-class flowability and packing density.

GE also supplies additive manufacturing machines. Its Arcam EBM Q10 plus is optimized for the serial production of orthopedic implants. Its Concept Laser M2 Series 5 helps maintain consistency and produce repeatable, high-quality parts at scale. Its Concept Laser Mlab family of instruments is suitable for the fast and efficient production of high-surface quality parts.

finviz dynamic chart for  GE

For Q3 2023, GE reported a revenue of US$17.3 billion.

The Future of Additive Manufacturing in Healthcare Diagnostics

We have already seen researchers from topmost universities across the world working on additive manufacturing innovations. These innovations will definitely make healthcare diagnostics more accessible, less peripheral and consumable-intensive, fast, and easy to deploy. Apart from the companies we have already mentioned above, many other innovative enterprises are working towards scaling up 3D printing solutions in health tech and med-tech.

For instance, Belgium-based 3D printing firm Materialise offers 3D printing software for researchers and surgeons, personalized surgical guides, and other point-of-care tools. It also sells customizable orthopedics solutions, including shoulder, acetabular hip, and cranio-maxillofacial implants.

Minnesota-based Stratasys offers 3D printing capabilities for surgical planning models, healthcare professionals' training and education, medical device prototyping, and dental implants.

A synergistic collaboration between researchers, scientific institutions, physicians, surgeons, and manufacturing companies would help leverage additive manufacturing or 3D printing further for the benefit of healthcare diagnostics.

Click here for the list of the top ten additive manufacturing and 3D printing stocks to watch out for.

Gaurav started trading cryptocurrencies in 2017 and has fallen in love with the crypto space ever since. His interest in everything crypto turned him into a writer specializing in cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Soon he found himself working with crypto companies and media outlets. He is also a big-time Batman fan.