Treating Cancer with 3D Printing? It's Happening Today!
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There's been a lot of excitement with 3 dimensional printing over the past couple years. From aircraft and vacuum cleaner part production, to rapid prototyping of new designs, to foods like pasta and chocolate, nothing seems beyond the potential of 3D printing. Turns out, we can add cancer treatment to the list.
3D printing impacts oncology in two broad ways:
First, in the development of new drugs. Using 3D printing, it is now possible to create small organ like structures to more realistically test candidate chemotherapy drugs. Consider the liver, where most drugs of any kind are broken down. It's easy to grow liver cells (hepatocytes) as a single layer of cells in a petri dish and expose them to drugs. In the body, the liver is a three dimensional organ with blood coming in through the hepatic artery and portal vein, filtering through several layers of hepatocytes and then re-entering the circulation via the central vein. Generally, hepatocytes closest to the hepatic artery and portal vein are hammered the hardest by drugs while hepatocytes closest to the hepatic vein are affected the least. It is now possible to create a piece of tissue that faithfully duplicates this blood flow through normal liver. In turn, this allows more accurate studies examining the effects of drugs on the organ.
Organovo (NASDAQOTH: ONVO) is one way to get in on this action. They make 3D models of liver as well as heart and skin. Their goal is to make fully functional hearts, livers, and kidneys for transplant. Right now, they are making small scale pieces of such tissue for drug testing. They recently signed agreements with Pfizer and United Therapeutics and hope to book revenue this fall. ONVO is a speculative investment. The company has a bona fide technology, a functional product, a new production facility with four times the space to produce product, increasing revenue, but not a penny of profit. So patience is required, but on the other hand, ONVO is the only publicly traded company I can find doing this.
The second oncology app for 3D printing is using modern digital radiology to create replicas of a patient's tumor with surrounding bone and tissue. A common example is the jaw. A 3D printed mock-up of the jaw with the tumor and surrounding tissue is created from MRI or CT scans. From this a metal plate is made to bridge the space where the jaw bone is resected. The plate closely matches the jaw's natural shape and contour and results in a more cosmetically acceptable result. Bone grafts can be made the same way. Ideally, both plates and grafts can be made together to get the best of both worlds. Best of all, plates and grafts can be made pre-operatively, thus saving operating room time. This same technology can be used to repair bone damaged by infection, trauma or congenital defect. Forensics is also employing this technology.
Both 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD) and Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS) markets printers capable of printing organ models. DDD offers its Z System printer that can make a model from CT or MRI scans (it needs a third party software package to help with digital translation) and its ProJet printer that can make models from oral scans. Finnish dental implant maker Planmeca Oy uses a ZSystem 450 to make a variety of multicolor models of patients' faces for implants, surgery practice and medical education. SSYS markets its Dimension printer that also makes models of oral structures with scans. Just how valuable is this technology to a hospital? Finnish doctors estimate it reduces their OR time by an hour or two and reduces time a patient spends in intensive care by one day, sometimes two. If my old hospital's calculations are correct, OR time costs $60/minute. So just reducing an operation by an hour saves the hospital $3600 per procedure. One day in the ICU can cost a minimum of $3500, and more than $10,000 depending on mechanical ventilation and other supportive measures. In today's medical world, that is not chump change.
DDD and SSYS trade at high PE and PEG ratios and are vulnerable to an earnings disappointment, but I think they have enormous potential, particularly in industrial production. They are both volatile investments so keep the Tums handy. Both companies have earnings, so they are not speculative like ONVO. By all accounts, making 3D models for practicing surgery is cost-effective; Using ONVO's tissue replicas for drug testing is an unanswered question. Frankly, printing 3D models of organs is certainly useful, but a niche market. DDD recently acquired Bespoke Innovations, a company that makes prosthetics, so DDD may be more aggressive in the medical field in the future. Overall though, I think oncology sales will be the proverbial "cherry on top" for 3D printing companies. But what a cool cherry it will be.
dylan588 owns shares of 3D Systems, Stratasys, and Organovo Holdings. The Motley Fool owns shares of 3D Systems and has the following options: short NOV 2012 $35.00 calls on 3D Systems. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend 3D Systems and Stratasys. Try 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.If you have questions about this post or the Fool’s blog network, click here for information.