A 3D-printed model of a heart was used to help doctors prepare for surgery on a 9-month-old baby born with congenital heart disease at Nanjing Children's Hospital in July, highlighting how far this technology has come and how it may be used in the future.
The main way 3D printing is used in China's medical industry is the printing of models for pre-operation preparation purposes, namely making plastic copies of patients' diseased organs so doctors can study them, medical professionals said.
The use of 3D printing for dental work and healing broken bones has been going on for a long time and many hospitals have adopted these methods, while the use of the technology to actually print new cells and soft tissues is still in the research and development stage, according to a China Business News report.
In 2013, the volume of China's 3D printing market was estimated at 1.72 billion yuan ($268 million), it was growing at 77 percent year on year and accounted for 9 percent of the global market, according to a research released by Ipsos Business Consulting in May 2015.
Effective and accurate
Sun Jian, attending doctor for the baby with congenital heart disease told the Global Times that the baby is now at home in a good condition and that this technology can reduce both the time and risks associated with surgery.
Wu Xiaowei, a senior officer with a medical instrument company focusing on 3D printing told the Global Times that doctors are rather open to trying the new technology. CT scanning and their own memories are all doctors used to be able to use to visualize the patient's interior, which cannot guarantee 100 percent accuracy in surgery.
3D printing can facilitate diagnosis and treatment, as if the hospital can by print out full-scale models the patients and doctors can better understand how the surgery will be performed, said doctors.
In future, it could also be used in the research and development of new medicines and treatment as printing organs would eliminate the controversy around the use of tissues removed from living human bodies, in addition to the ease of printing large numbers of such organs, said Wu.
Reliable and cost-effective?
This futuristic technology doesn't come cheap. A small model costs at least 700 yuan and the most expensive models produced by Wu's company cost over 8,000 yuan. Some models take up to 70 hours to make, and trained staff must monitor the printer at all times.
Liu Wenke, a doctor at West China Hospital, Sichuan University told the Global Times that technology companies needs to address patients' concerns about the reliability and cost-effectiveness of 3D printing.
Moreover, the technology is affordable for only a few hospitals that have sufficient financial support and access to mature technology, added Liu.
A model of a brain tumor costs nearly 3,000 yuan, while just using a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan costs around 1,400 yuan, said Liu.
Also, an MRI scan can be paid for partly or wholly by the patient's healthcare insurance, Ke Daibo, another physician at Liu's hospital told the Global Times.
Furthermore, whether there are any side effects of the 3D-printed prosthetics remains to be seen, said Sun.
There are few regulations or laws that cover the use of medical 3D-printed products, which means it is easy for hospitals to experiment with the technology. However, the lack of regulations brings concerns about whether there is sufficient oversight to prevent the technology being used in unsafe ways, according to Wu.
So far, the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) only requires the examination and approval of implantable 3D-printed products that are used for orthopedic purposes.
"Products need legally valid certificates of qualification. We have a set of regulations on registration, production and operation, but a specific supervision system for 3D-printed products is not in place," a CFDA official responsible for the supervision of medical devices told the Global Times.
"Regulatory frameworks are expected to be implemented to standardize industry practices to increase the adoption of the technology," noted the Ipsos report.