August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Less than three years ago, it dawned on scientist Jorge Zuniga why a childhood friend wanted nothing more than to play baseball.

It was odd. Growing up in Santiago, Chile, there were not many baseball fans. Just the one, as far as Zuniga knew (after all, soccer reigns supreme in Chile). Even more curious, Zuniga’s friend had just one hand.

Why baseball?

“There’s not one baseball field in the whole country,” Zuniga says, laughing at the exaggeration, “but this one kid without a hand wants to be a baseball player.”

Then, 20-odd years later, Zuniga and his 7-year-old son are playing catch in the long shadows of the front yard. Zuniga remembers his one-armed friend and his inexplicable love of baseball. Then it hits him.

“Oh,” Zuniga says, “I bet this kid that didn’t have a hand just wanted to do what every kid wants to do.” He yearned to play catch.

Biomedical2Earlier that same day, he had listened to a radio news report about “Robohand,” a project in South Africa that creates 3D-printed prosthetics for children. Zuniga—with a doctorate in exercise physiology and a lab at Creighton University—wanted to know more about the Robohand. But he had difficulty connecting with the researchers involved.

After several attempts to reach the people in South Africa, he relied on his own knowledge, resources, and expertise to make a prosthetic on his own. It took several months to perfect his prototype, but Zuniga’s journey highlights how the health care industry is utilizing new breakthroughs in 3D printing technology.

Nothing is more personal than health care. And few things are more customizable than the 3D-printed object. The field of prosthetics represents just one obvious medical application for the technology, one with many advantages: to provide a custom-fitted solution for an amputee; to shave thousands off the cost of traditional prosthetic limbs; to negate the financial burden if insurance doesn’t cover the device; and especially for children, to provide a fast solution to wear, tear, and outgrowing the artificial body part. 

But prosthetics only scratch the surface of possibilities awaiting biomedical 3D printing. The FDA, for example, recently approved the first 3D printed drug—an incredibly fast-acting seizure medication that dissolves in seconds thanks to a structure only possible through 3D printing.

Improvements to medical devices that were once too expensive to contemplate can be prototyped on the cheap. Zuniga, who now (as of August 15) works out of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Biomechanics Research Building, says he has printed the model of a fetus for a blind mother who wanted to “see” her unborn baby. He has also worked with physicians at Omaha Children’s Hospital to print three-dimensional models of patient hearts so surgeons can study the organ long before they pick up a scalpel.

Zuniga’s use of 3D printing carries immediate significance and practicality. A glance at the more fantastic applications, however, can be found at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. There, biomedical engineer Bin Duan is heading up a new bioprinting unit that is printing and growing bone and cartilage for regenerative purposes. Later this year, Duan and his team will implant small plugs of printed bone into animals that should eventually integrate with the animal’s existing tissue.

Bioprinting works by printing with at least two different materials. First, a biocompatible polymer creates a scaffold or lattice in the desired shape of the tissue, such as an ear or a piece of bone. The second material, living cells, are printed onto the scaffold. The cells cling to the structure, and over the course of several weeks they live and multiply as the scaffold slowly degrades and disappears. Eventually, the scaffold material is gone, but the tissue remains.

One potential application of UNMC’s bone tests could be used to help future children born with certain defects. A printed bone implant made from the child’s stem cells would then grow with the child, eliminating the need for multiple surgeries.

In a more distant future, an organ transplant might not be from a random donor, but from the patient’s own stem cells: a new, perfect organ printed when it is needed, and far less prone to rejection. Skin grafts and bone regeneration, all of it made with a patient’s personal cells.

UNMC’s bioprinting program is still in its infancy, so a breakthrough with more complex systems will likely come from a place like Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Widely regarded as the national leader for 3D bioprinting, researchers there have already printed skin, blood vessels, bladders, and muscle—some of them implanted in humans. But complex organs like the heart, kidneys, and liver remain unsolved puzzles…for now.

In the here and now, researchers like Zuniga can make accessible what was once out of reach for many.

When he finished his first 3D-printed prosthetic arm, he showed it to his young son. The elder Zuniga expected to impress his son with the level of realism it held. The boy was not impressed.

“He said, ‘If that’s for children, that’s not gonna work,’” Zuniga says. “’Daddy, that hand is too real. You need something cooler than that.’”

Inspired by his son’s insight, Zuniga created “Cyborg Beast,” a brightly colored, prosthetic, cybernetic hand that more closely resembles something out of a science fiction movie than a human limb. The plans and instructions on how to use them are open and free to anyone with access to a 3D printer.

“You’d be surprised at how many people around the world have access to (3D printing) machines,” Zuniga says. “…It’s like the start of a revolution.”

An artificial limb that once cost $4,000, can now be had for about $50—about the cost of a trip to the ballpark.

Visit cyborgbeast.org to learn more. B2B

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