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VA Lab Uses 3D Printing to Help Vets With Disabilities

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3D printing has seen a sudden rise in interest within medicine, and the Veterans Administration (VA) has been tapping the technology to improve life for disabled veterans.

3D printers can be used to design and create prosthetics and other assistive devices. At the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL), a collaborative effort between the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, the University of Pittsburgh and the Rehabilitation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, researchers focus in part on 3D printing to improve the mobility and function of people with disabilities such as lost limbs and spinal injuries. HERL's 3D printers rely on technology so advanced they can print almost anything that can be designed on a computer using plastic, metal, or rubber. (HERL is also home to the VA Center of Excellence on Wheelchairs and Associated Rehabilitation Engineering.)

Dr. Brad Dicianno, HERL medical director, and Garrett Grindle, HERL's assistant director of engineering, co-authored a recent review of the topic in PM&R: The Journal of Injury, Function, and Rehabilitation.

“Right now, 3D printers are excellent for fabricating highly customized parts that can be used for personalized assistive technology,” they recently explained in a written interview with VA Research Currents.

Today, they are commonly used to make medical device prototypes, individualized surgical models, and dental and orthopedic implants. But their use is constantly expanding due to growing public awareness, investor involvement, and policy interest. Dicianno and Grindle envision a future awash in customizable 3D-printed devices, surgical tools, and biologics—and possibly even entire 3D printing departments in hospitals.

For more than 15 years, HERL has been involved in 3D printing, and has used it to develop and commercialize assistive technologies like the Virtual Seating Coach, which uses an app to help clinicians determine the best seating regimen for individual power wheelchair users.

“There is often not an off-the-shelf device to meet a need. Traditionally, fabricating custom devices is time-consuming, expensive, and hard to maintain over time,” Dicianno and Grindle said. “Three-dimensional printing speeds up this cycle. Since it is easier to manufacture complex shapes with a 3D printer than with more traditional technologies, we can often make the devices function better and be more aesthetically pleasing… However, [3D printing’s] use in making custom parts for people is just getting started.”

The scientists believe that 3D printing will lead to a rise in designs and devices that are more individually tailored to those who need them, such as amputees—particularly children—and wheelchair users.

“We think we will likely see more highly customized interfaces such as cushions, arm rests, postural supports, or head rests,” they wrote. “Custom handles and buttons might make power wheelchairs easier to operate for people with limited hand function.”

For more, read the full interview with Dicianno and Grindle at VA Research Currents.

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