3-D Printing's Revolutionary Impact on Healthcare

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Source: Melissa Ng's website Lumecluster.

It can be much easier to doubt the long-term prospects for game-changing companies than to stick with them through thick and thin. To overcome the challenge of Mr. Market's inevitable swoons, there are times when investors must simply do their homework, ignore the crowd, and trust that these rule-breaking companies will get back on track.

That long-haul approach may be exactly what investors should be doing with 3-D technology companies like 3D SystemsStratasys and Arcam AB . Those companies have been among the stock market's best performers since exiting the Great Recession, but they've fallen sharply this year.

Much of the worry over 3-D companies stems from fear that they've run too fast, too far. That's understandable given that 3D Systems and Stratasys have soared 1,081% and 574%, respectively, since the end of 2009.

Given those returns, it's not too surprising to see their share prices give some of their gains back this year. But investors may be better served considering the opportunity that lies ahead for these companies in serving sectors like healthcare, than focusing too much attention on this year's swoon.

Reimagining medical procedures, instruments, and equipment
Until recently, if a patient needed heart surgery, the surgeon relied on two-dimensional images to plan his or her approach. Today, 3-D technology is allowing surgeons to create and hold in their hands a replica of their patients' hearts.

These personalized models allow surgeons to see the finest details hidden inside the heart -- details that traditional imaging technology would miss. That type of personalized medicine is so appealing that 3D Systems acquired Medical Modelling in April, and spent $120 million buying surgical simulation and training company Simbionix in August.

Acquiring Medical Modelling helped formalize 3D's personalized surgery simulation and 3-D printing modeling chops. The Simbionix deal gives 3D additional simulation platforms across eight different specialties, including solutions that allow doctors to conduct simulated laparoscopic surgery on patients prior to an actual surgery. Because Simbionix solutions can be found in training centers, hospitals, and colleges worldwide, it wouldn't be shocking to see 3D Systems leverage Simbionix simulators alongside 3D's printing expertise to make the use of personalized 3D-printed anatomies mainstream.

But it's not just 3-D printing technology's ability to help surgeons plan for tricky procedures that makes 3-D technology a potential medical game changer; 3-D printers are increasingly being used to create medical devices and equipment, too. Hobbyists and medical device companies are using 3-D technology to create innovative and attractive prosthetics, and youngsters are getting in on the action, too.

For example, 16-year old Arsh Shah Dilbagi used a 3-D printer this past summer to craft a tool that helps turn breathing through your nose into understandable speech. That device won him the Google Science Fair's voters choice award this year.

Source: Arcam

The potential for 3-D printed implants isn't lost on Arcam, a 3-D printing company that focuses on metal printing technology, and that has been printing FDA-cleared and CE-certified orthopedic implants since 2007. Arcam-printed orthopedic implants have been used in more than 30,000 patients and, in September, Arcam snapped up DiSanto Technology, a maker of 3-D printed orthopedic implants, to bulk up its product line.

Big medical equipment company Stryker is also using 3-D technology to build medical implants. This past summer, Stryker produced a specially designed 3D mesh out of titanium that was used to restore a farmer's skull in China. Stryker also uses 3-D printers to make knee implants.

Revolutionizing medicine
In August, researchers at Louisiana Tech University developed a bio-absorbable bead that could replace the metal beads currently used to deliver antibiotics and chemotherapy to cancer patients. Those beads are often used to localize the delivery of drugs to specific targets, avoiding potential risks to vital organs like the kidneys or liver. It marks the first foray into using 3-D printing to deliver medicine and, potentially even more intriguing, the researchers were able to do it on a relatively inexpensive MakerBot machine made by Stratasys.

3-D oriented companies are also working on improving how medicine is tested in preclinical studies. Organovo Partners has already created bioprinted tissue that can be used to evaluate drug toxicity, and the company partnered with Johnson & Johnson earlier this summer on a program that aims to evaluate 3-D printed tissue for drug discovery, too.

3-D technology's use in biotechnology may not be limited to drug discovery and preclinical testing, either. Andrew Hessel, a scientist who works for the CAD software design firm Autodesk, made a pretty impressive presentation at Fool headquarters in September postulating, among other potential uses, that 3-D printing may someday have a role in curing cancer.

Hessel bases that assertion on work that is already being done in crafting viruses that, unlike chemotherapy, target cancer cells without targeting healthy cells, too. Hessel thinks that 3-D technology could be used to design and create those viruses, as well as cancer-killing viruses specially designed for each individual patient.

Lots of work to do
There's little question that healthcare is embracing 3-D technology quickly, but there's still a lot of work to be done to lower the cost of sophisticated 3-D machines, and increase their production speed before they're ready for mass-market medical use. Even further out is the almost unbelievable notion that 3-D technology could eventually revolutionize how drugmakers design, test, and deliver personalized medicine. This is an area where innovation is just beginning, so the true potential could still be a long way from being realized. Regardless, the potential long-term opportunity for the use of 3-D technology in healthcare is endlessly intriguing.

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The article 3-D Printing's Revolutionary Impact on Healthcare originally appeared on Fool.com.

Todd Campbell owns shares of 3D Systems and Stratasys. Todd Campbell owns E.B. Capital Markets, LLC. E.B. Capital's clients may or may not have positions in the companies mentioned. Todd owns Gundalow Advisors, LLC. Gundalow's clients do not have positions in the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Johnson & Johnson, Nike, 3D Systems, and StratasysTry any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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