In April 2016, Dubai announced its ambitious plan to become a regional and international leader in 3D printing, with the medical sector as a core focus.
The Middle East’s medical landscape is on track to become rapidly futuristic in the coming years with the advent and ongoing development of 3D-printed technologies. Armed with fast-evolving techniques and printed materials, the emerging sector can become a critical tool in the fight against the region’s epidemic of non-communicable diseases (NCD), such as renal failure and diabetes.
Addressing World Health Organisation concerns
Dr Ala Alwan, World Health Organisation (WHO) regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean warns: “Notwithstanding its ample resources, the Arab world and the larger Middle East will witness millions of premature deaths in the coming years if no serious action is taken to scale up efforts to reduce the incidence of and improve the quality of care of NCDs.”
In turn, the emirate has unveiled the ‘International Centre for 3D Printing’ - a hub for design and technology companies. Targeted mainly at the construction, medical and consumer products sectors, the centre includes research and development laboratories for testing materials used in 3D-printed products.
UAE on top of its game
Saif Al Aleeli, CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation, says the conceptualisation of 3D printing solutions for healthcare is already a top priority for the region. He added that “3D printing has the potential to make everything cheaper, faster, and more customised. The techniques make sense for medicine and printing custom casts of bones, joints and teeth”.
There are several particular technologies and techniques within the 3D-printing toolset that can serve the UAE’s healthcare needs. According to experts, the technology is currently being used mainly to support the surgical process. “The most commonplace application we see is 3D-printed, anatomically correct surgical planning models,” says Alexander Papantoniou, managing director of Dubai-based 3D printing firm, D2M Solutions FZE.
“These can be created from 3D data capture to allow surgical teams to know beforehand of any potential issues so they can avoid implications during the surgery.” Papantoniou says the actual printing of organs is still in a nascent stage. “Organs are not actually printed; they are rather grown by using 3D-printed structures to encourage the growth of cells in a particular pattern.”
Printing for human repair
Papantoniou anticipates 3D printing will have a significant impact on two important UAE health issues – reconstructive surgery and diabetes prevention.
“It’s a fantastic tool for reconstructive surgery. If we take the example of an individual that has suffered severe injury due to a car accident, it is now possible to recreate skeletal features to reconstruct the patient’s previous look and restore their quality of life,” the managing director says.
He continues: “Eventually, 3D printing could lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of diabetes, or how insulin is distributed to people suffering from the condition. It is my belief that 3D printing will impact the way that insulin is administered by offering more aesthetically pleasing and customised devices to make [a] patient’s life easier.”
Papantoniou has big hopes for the future for 3D printing in the UAE region. He says the sector is set to see breakthroughs in the coming years, “When researchers have developed the necessary technology to grow synthetic organs, such as the pancreas, we could see them transplanted into actual patients.”