If an astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS) needs a medical tool, such as a surgical instrument or a finger splint, they normally have to wait for a resupply mission. But that is about to change this month, when NASA astronauts will use a 3D printer aboard the ISS to create medical tools in space.
The ground-breaking concept was devised by Toronto doctor Julielynn Wong. In 2011, Wong founded the company 3D4MD, which uses 3D printing and low-cost technologies to supply remote locations, including space, with healthcare supplies. Wong explained how the process works to CTV’s Your Morning on Monday, using an example of an astronaut injuring their hand on the space station.
“We could take a laser scan stored from the fitting process for space suit gloves, use free software to create a digital model of a custom-fitted finger splint, uplink that digital file to the space station and 3D print it in space,” Wong said.
Wong’s company can also 3D print a three-in-one dental tool to replace an astronaut’s filling, a surgical tool if they had to perform surgery on Mars for instance, and a sensory evaluation tool used to assess an injured astronaut.
“It’s like having a 3D photocopier,” she said.
The first 3D printer in space was launched in 2014, by the company Made in Space, which was established by friends of Wong. She said they invited her to conduct research testing aboard a NASA aircraft that introduces astronauts to zero-gravity spaceflight, sometimes known as the “vomit comet.”
During that time, she met doctors working for NASA and told them about the possibility of using 3D printing for medical tools. Soon after, Wong was asked to 3D print at a Mars simulation habitat called The Mars Desert Research Station and the project took off from there.
“Now, this month, we’ll be making medical history by 3D printing the first medical tools in space,” Wong said.
The concept is more than just a valuable tool for space exploration. The use of 3D printing to create medical tools can have practical applications here on Earth as well.
Wong said designing items for the ISS is similar to designing them for remote communities that are off the grid. Using cellphones to scan patients and solar-powered 3D printers, Wong said healthcare workers in these communities would be able to create their own medical supplies, such as custom-fitted splints.
“This will not only save time and money for Canadian patients, but could benefit the 45 per cent of the world’s population who live in rural areas and who lack access to medical care,” Wong explained.
Wong said her company is also in the midst of creating a digital library similar to iTunes, except that, instead of songs, users would select and download crowdsourced 3D printable files to make lower-cost and personalized medical supplies on demand.