Beautiful and Terrifying: 3D Printing in Medecine

“3D printing will rock the world.” This phrase is becoming increasingly prevalent, and even mainstream, in today’s society. We are instructed to imagine a world in which we can produce a coffee mug where, mere moments before, stood just a printer and ink. A world in which we can transform digital images into physical realities virtually instantaneously. A world in which traditional boundaries are challenged, disrupted, destroyed. We tend to project this new realm of possibility in the context of the products sector; it is only natural that we are inclined to envision all of the new things we can acquire through these advances.

Yet the implications of 3D printing technologies expand far beyond the increased satisfaction of global consumers; they are redefining life itself, starting at the molecular level. The application of 3D printing began at a simple level, with commonplace products such as Invisalign and hearing aids being produced at an increasingly personalized level and reduced cost. As capabilities increased with each iteration of the technology, so did the medical applications that it could be applied to. Soon, prosthetics became a heavy focus of the industry; historically expensive and oftentimes ill-fitting, the ability to custom produce per customer revolutionized the lives of many users.

This particular advancement was especially pertinent to children, who are constantly growing and therefore require frequently updated prostheses. This proves to be an immense financial burden for families and, in many places, can even prevent the individual from receiving the required prosthetic. However, makers around the world have devoted themselves to harnessing the available technologies in order to increase accessibility to the proper production and training. Organizations such as Project Daniel and Enabling the Future utilize crowdsourcing to refine their open source designs and provide the best product possible at an affordable price.

This movement has proven especially impactful in regions where violence is prevalent and many young people who have lost limbs have traditionally lacked access to proper prosthetics, therefore hindering their ability to function at their full physical capacity. And now, as medical professionals begin to harness technologies that will utilize live tissues in order to resolve a wide spectrum of medical issues, this ideology will be taken to the next level. However, this proves to be no easy feat. The success of such endeavors relies entirely upon the ability to keep the tissues alive as the implants are developed; they even contain blood vessels and nerves.

Described as “a goose that really does lay golden eggs,” this new advance in the world of transplants and implants will address the prevalent issue of rejection. Oftentimes, patients receiving a foreign organ run the risk of severe medical complications if their body rejects the new part. Printing using one’s own cells essentially mitigates this risk, as the body will no longer process the new addition as being an “outsider.” This will also decrease the need for patients to take immunosuppressants when receiving said procedures, therefore decreasing risk of outside infections or viruses from wreaking havoc on their immune systems in their repressed states. From an economics perspective, these technologies are also capitalizing on a market that is in a constant state of shortage; the demand for organs nearly always exceeds the number of donations available, therefore making the process incredibly competitive and, in some cases, a matter of life and death.

However, this ethical sword is indubitably double-edged. Increasing the number of transplants available, and arguably increasing the quality of those received, resolves the age-old issue of assigning priority to transplant requests. For example, one’s age will hopefully no longer play a deciding role in whether or not a patient is granted the organ that will extend their lifespan. Despite this obvious upside, the new capabilities of these technologies also invite in the same desires and conflicts of interest that have been discussed in the context of genetics and designer babies.

Cosmetic surgeries have been a long-standing part of society, with individuals refining and redesigning aspects of themselves to better portray their vision of “beauty.” In recent years, genetics have allowed parents to elect (or discard) certain genes that may make their children prone to certain traits or medical conditions. This is a heavily debated ethical issue, and has been the center of heated controversy over the past few years. If people are willing to go to such lengths to increase the chances of their child having a certain hair color or proclivity to sports, I can only imagine the excitement that being able to redesign certain parts of themselves from scratch would generate. How far will they be willing to go? And at what point, if any, will it be society’s job to say “enough?” Although these technologies are still in their beta stages, I can only imagine the directions they might take if left to the demands of society. Will there be full facial transplants for those who simply wish to portray classic beauty? New sets of legs for those who wish to run faster?
We now hold the key to something beautiful and terrible; with unbridled potential at our fingertips, it is more important now than ever to delineate between needs and wants, those uses that are for the betterment of society and those that are superfluous to its progression. It is our responsibility to understand the power that we possess, and to move forward with both curiosity and caution so not to allot this great potential in a less than responsible manner.


Birrell, Ian. “3D-printed prosthetic limbs: the next revolution in medicine.” The Observer. Guardian News and Media, 19 Feb. 2017. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.

Gallagher, James. “Doctors 3D-print ‘living’ body parts.” BBC News. BBC, 16 Feb. 2016. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.

Mellgard, Peter. “Medical 3-D Printing Will ‘Enable a New Kind of Future'” The Huffington Post., 22 Apr. 2015. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.

Shaer, Matthew. “Soon, Your Doctor Could Print a Human Organ on Demand.” Smithsonian Institution, 01 May 2015. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.