When it comes to envisioning a future based on advances in 3-D printing, popular opinion tends to run to extremes. 3-D printing is either a novelty—making candy bars on the Hersey's factory floor and minor items like iPhone cases—or it's part of a dystopian future, like printing firearms and human body parts.
The health-care promise held by 3-D printing, though, is real, and it may develop in much smaller steps—not livesaving or life-lengthening technologies, but life-changing innovations. It shouldn't have to take the shape of a 3-D-printed organ or create a photo-op for lab mice with human ears, either, to receive attention from the press.
This is the goal and direction of TeVido BioDevices, an Austin, Texas-based 3-D printing start-up that is tackling a huge women's health-care issue: reconstructive surgery after a breast cancer–related mastectomy. TeVido is using living cells from women to 3-D-print a small human body part: a female nipple.
The need for this kind of plastic surgery innovation in the health-care system exists today and is growing. "There's a real shift in the U.S. to mastectomy," said Laura Bosworth, CEO and co-founder of TeVido.
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Women are being diagnosed with breast cancer earlier, and that leads to survival rates being much higher and a longer life expectancy. There has also been a huge increase in preventive mastectomies, highlighted by Hollywood celebrity Angelina Jolie's public stance on her own decision to have a double mastectomy. Insurance reimbursement rates are also up, due to the Women's Health and Cancer Rights Act (WHCRA), a U.S. federal law that requires most group insurance plans that cover mastectomies to also cover breast reconstruction.