3D-Printing Enters New Dimensions
Can 3D-printing reduce the costs of prosthetics and improve the lives of those living with neuro-muscular challenges? Abdul-Khaaliq Mohamed, from the School of Electrical and Information Engineering at Wits University, has found an ingenious way to do just that. The possibilities of 3D “bio-printing” enabled Mohamed to make a hand prosthetic that responds to neural impulses from the brain.
His 3D-printed mechanical prosthesis costs R20 000 – a marked difference from a traditionally made prosthetic, which costs about R500 000.
“This world of lean manufacturing and 3D-printing has introduced new efficiencies into the highly technical and previously prohibitively expensive medical industry,” says Mondli Mngomezulu, strategic director at Matte BLK Printing. Beyond mere prosthetics, Mngomezulu says that human organs, such as livers, kidneys and hearts, can be made with a 3D-printer using “bio-ink”, printing living tissues layer by layer. “The ultimate objective is to make these bio-printed organs suitable for human transplantation – which is a critical solution available when the demand for organ donations surpasses the supply.”
Precision medicine through 3D-printing
While medicine is a science and thorough testing usually enables precise answers to questions, no two human beings with the same diagnosis will experience their illness in an identical way. But treatment is usually the same. Precision medicine is a step ahead of a one-size-fits-all medical approach, allowing for the tailoring of treatment according to an individual’s needs.
While precision medicine is usually spoken of in genetic medicine circles, 3D-printing can be used as a tool in personalised medicine, says Mngomezulu. “A pill’s raw material – usually in a powder form – is inserted into a specialised 3D-printing machine. The printer can be programmed to make the correct dosage, and the drug is then created in a layered manner. Such technology was once a pipe dream, like something from a science-fiction book. Not any more.”
Wearing your health on your sleeve
Knowing one’s health information has never been more important, especially in the time of a global health crisis. Akhram Mohamed, chief technology officer at the Huawei Consumer Business Group, explains that wearable devices, such as the Huawei Watch Fit, can measure blood oxygen saturation levels. This information can reflect compromised lung function, and can indicate the presence of COVID-19 infection.
“Research and development in the health and fitness technology space have made massive progress over the last few years,” says Mohamed. “We now find that wearables in many cases are sufficiently equipped and accurate enough to replace professional stand-alone healthcare devices such as blood oximeters.”
Mohamed says devices like the Huawei Watch Fit are also useful in monitoring a person’s mental health. “This device tracks stress levels, analyses stress triggers and provides recommendations on managing stress,” he adds.
Asthma death rates in South Africa are among the highest in the world, with an estimated 18.5 deaths per 100 000 cases, according to The Global Asthma Report. But a new wearable monitor, the ADAMM-RSM, is able to monitor respiratory function and help asthma sufferers manage their illness. “The ADAMM-RSM is really important as a tool in primary healthcare and medical screening,” says company spokesperson Ronnie Krüger. “This wearable assists with diagnosis, treatment and disease management, and most certainly saves lives in South Africa.”
Data extracted from the device can be shared with caregivers, family members and physicians, with the patient’s consent.
Health information for paramedics and doctors
QFIND is a wearable wristband device especially useful for paramedics and medical practitioners to access information about a patient who may not be able to articulate pre-existing conditions, allergies, previous operations, medical aid details, and next-of-kin contacts. Medical personnel use a connected app to scan the QR code on a patient’s wristband to quickly access the wearer’s profile.
Naseem Gaffoor, the brains behind QFIND, says that the device speaks for people when they are unable to. “We asked a sample of paramedics and other medical personnel about their challenges in emergency situations, and one of them is the struggle to obtain unresponsive patients’ vital medical details, which could save time in treatment. The immediate contact details of the next of kin are also an important addition.”
Adam Pantanowitz, Danielle Winter and Jemma-Faye Chait of Wits University have pioneered a technology that connects the human brain to a computer in real time. “Brainternet” is particularly useful for people with disabilities like epilepsy, as it could predict the next seizure. Brainwaves are streamed on the internet, alerting friends and family of a patient’s condition in real time.
Meanwhile, Pantanowitz, Graham Peyton and Rudolf Hoehler have created a brain-computer interface application using the same technology of gazing at light to turn a device off and on, without a person physically using their arm to do this.
“The application was to demonstrate how disabled people can control their environment through brain-computer interfaces,” says Pantanowitz. “In this case, we would look at a flashing light to turn a robotic arm on and off. That is, you didn’t need to switch it on; just look at the flashing light to control it. The arm would then be activated, and we could then use facial gestures to control the movement of the arm.
“Using this, Graham was able to – without touching anything at all – switch the robotic arm on and pick up a pawn, just using his brain.”