3D Printed Medical Supplies Could Change Future Of Aerospace Injuries

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Despite the fact that 15% of all paper documents end up misplaced in an office environment, the printer is a remarkable machine. Since its creation, printing has saved human beings from a myriad of health problems, including arthritis, carpal tunnel, and now more advanced medical injuries.

Being an engineer may grant you the possible salary of $150,000, but its ability to let you apply for NASA’s Astronaut Candidate Program may be the better advantage. Working in space, an astronaut conducts research on their microgravity environment, performs experiments, and — of course — performs the occasional zero-gravity somersault. However, working in space may not be as fun when an astronaut becomes injured. The medical supplies are limited.

According to CNN, a simple radio message from deep space could take 20 minutes to transfer back to Earth. Should an astronaut fall ill or suffer from a medical injury during an expedition into space, the time it would take to send medical instruments and supplies could cause serious complications.

Here, the 3D printer makes its big debut. In January 2017, Dr. Julielynn Wong became the first astronaut to print medical supplies using a 3D printer in space. Wong created a customized finger splint using free software, a laser hand scan, and a 3D printer that was on the space station.

Because astronauts work in a zero gravity environment, they have to use their hands to get around as a person on Earth would use their feet. As a result, hand injuries in space are incredibly common. Among the injuries are mallet finger injuries, which require the astronaut to wear a finger splint.

Wong and her colleagues had previously tested the process of 3D printing medical supplies back in 2014. Wong printed up to 10 surgical instruments and then tested them against the typical steel instruments. The result? The 3D printed instruments worked equally as well as the steel.

Astronauts may now be able to print the medical supplies they need from the comforts of space without stocking up on supplies elsewhere on the station. However, it isn’t only astronauts who could use this cheaper, quicker, and more available form of medical supply. Using her dual board certification in public health and aerospace medicine, Wong founded 3D4MD, a 3D printing medical supply company capable of printing supplies on-site.

“We have hundreds of people across 10 countries crowdsourcing low-cost solutions to save lives, time, and money,” said Wong. “We have projects with humanitarian medical organizations like Doctors Without Borders to train workers on how to scan and 3D print in the field.”

3D4MD has printed multiple 3D medical materials including prosthetics for patients with missing limbs to cup-holders for patients in wheelchairs. Wong also founded the Medical Makers, a for-profit social enterprise created to help design medical tools using free software and 3D printers.

“We don’t start designing solutions until we’ve met a patient or health care provider, because we have to understand their needs or challenges,” said Wong. “… We want to empower patients to create the solutions they need the most.”

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