Human spare parts, digitality and 3D printing

by Pekka Ketola (ideascout.fi) & Pauli Kuosmanen (digile.fi)

This blog was originally published March 13th 2015 in Digile activityblog.

This blog is available also in Finnish. Tämä blogi on luettavissa myös suomeksi.

The report of the Future Committee of the Finnish Parliament, “A Hundred New Opportunities for Finland“, introduces a large number of things that will affect health care in the form of virtualization, data processing and local manufacturing. These include:

  • open data, big data and self-organizing data
  • easy imaging of objects and computationally created images
  • freely organized remote work and organizations formed online, as well as
  • 3D printing.

This blog post will take a look at how development paths like these may affect the future of health care.

1. More knowledge – more suffering?

Online data banks, automatized data collection and data analysis enable applications that have never been possible before. Data is collected automatically every minute, and theoretically every little piece of data is connected to a larger whole. Data may then be utilized creatively for prediction, understanding complex processes and offering alternatives, for example.

Google in particular has amazed us with the multitude of ways in which data can be collected, analyzed and utilized in surprising ways. An example of this is analyzing Google search data to predict global influenza epidemics. In addition to being able to make global predictions based on the data, the same big data can be used for targeted purposes, such as user-specific advertising and finding personalized solutions. Perhaps in the future, the computer can warn you that you’re going to catch a flu next week. At the same time, you receive cheap offers for tissues and targeted drugs and a recommendation to postpone your holiday trip.

2. Smile – you’re on camera!

A human gets imaged at several stages during their life. The first pictures are taken during pregnancy at a maternity clinic. During childhood and after accidents, x-rays are used to map things like bones and teeth. Bodies are x-rayed at airport security checks. Detailed models of internal organs are created during various treatment procedures, such as computer tomography. There is already a small image library of each one of us.

The human image library is incomplete and fragmented into different data systems, but each image includes exact identification data about the person. If paleontologists are able to figure out the remaining parts of a dinosaur based on a femur, how much can we make out of a human’s exact structure based on the existing images and other data?

Would it be possible to start building a personal data bank of each person systematically, and could this be useful? Who could manage and utilize such a bank? Soldiers, for example, could be imaged and the images stored in a data bank so that limbs and bones lost in battle can be reconstructed, if necessary.

3. Biobanks & crowdsourcing

There are four licensed biobanks in Finland. Biobanks collect samples and data for future research and development projects. Any human data, such as x-rays, medical histories and genetic data may be stored in the same database.

A biobank, i.e. a database, will not create a complete image of a person. How can this incomplete data be utilized in an acute treatment situation, for example? The answer may lie in big data. A person’s own biobank will provide some of the required data. The missing data may be produced by analyzing similar situations and persons based on global data, and obviously data about close relatives.

It would be good to collect biobank data throughout a human’s lifespan. Long-term data produces scientific understanding of things like the growth of bones. The data may also be utilized, for instance, by being able to produce the right kind of 3D-printed prosthesis for a teenager who has lost their arm at regular intervals as they grow up. A similar concept is already being used to produce extracorporeal supporting structures.

If developed correctly, biobanks are the currency of the future. By utilizing data stored in them, we can save money in health care costs, predict treatment needs and develop new services.

4. Biodata is raw material for 3D printing

3D printing is based on 3D models. Models are created with computer assistance by hand, by imaging existing things, by customizing existing models or by automatically generating a model based on given criteria.

Automated design, image interpretation and computationally created images are already used in movies and video games, for example. Current artificial intelligence software is able to independently create algorithms, music and images. This type of software will probably be able to model an entire human, if given the femur as a starting point.

Several CAD modeling software already have built-in features that optimize a three-dimensional model for 3D printing. These software are also able to independently produce optimized shapes that conform to given design criteria regarding things like the amount, density or durability of the material. Biobanks contain digital data that can be converted into things like 3D models using the ideas described above. In other words, biobanks may be connected to printing quite directly.

Researchers are currently busy trying to find out what human organs can be produced by 3D printing. Bioprinting has already been used to produce heart valves, liver tissue, bone, kidneys, muscle cells and skin. In the future, biobanks will practically allow the production of human spare parts.

5. Conclusion

Medical applications are one of the greatest potentials for business related to 3D printing. Bone and tooth implants are already routinely produced by the 3D printing of titanium and ceramics. Gradually and inevitably, bioprinting will move from research labs to practice and ever deeper under the skin!

It would make sense to start a systematic and national collection of biodata by using existing methods, combining data from different sources and building an architecture that allows medical production of human spare parts in the future. As a technology, the routine printing of human muscles and organs is still a dream that is many years away, but we can start preparing for it already by collecting a unique database about our people. Combining genetic and other biobank data to the bank described here will create an enormous amount of new possibilities. The necessary know-how, whether it’s data processing, imaging or research into human spare parts, is something we have already.

Finland has great opportunities to become a leading country in biobanks and bioprinting.

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