On Jan. 11, while hurtling around Earth at gravity-defying speed, astronauts aboard the International Space Station did something that could revolutionize extraterrestrial health care: using a desktop-sized 3D printer, they made their own medical supplies, using blueprints downloaded direct from Toronto.
3D4MD, the company behind the historic feat, created the digital files, which can be printed out in three dimensions wherever needed. “It’s really not that different from a Microsoft Word file,” says Julielynn Wong, founder of 3D4MD and its partner group, Medical Makers. “And the library is similar to iTunes.” The immediate benefits are clear: instead of taking up valuable room on spacecraft, astronauts can attend to medical emergencies by making custom supplies to order. The crowdsourced library of tools already includes finger splints and prosthetic hands — and according to Wong, the best is yet to come.
Growing up in Ontario, Wong was always fascinated with space. As a child, she joined the Girl Guides and quickly accumulated achievement badges — including an astronomy badge, which she’s kept ever since. She joined the Royal Canadian Air Cadets at 13 and got her glider-pilot’s licence three years later. Today she owns “at least six drones,” and races them for fun. “One of the great things about racing drones,” she says, “is breaking them. Because then you have to fix them. Once you understand how technology works, then you can build it, and then you can teach others how to as well.”
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Her foray into 3D printing is only a first step in the burgeoning field of galactic medical care. Raffi Kuyumjian, a flight surgeon with the Canadian Space Agency, explains that getting regular medical tools to the ISS is simple enough — although saving any shelf room on board is useful. But what gets Kuyumjian excited is the possibility of future innovations. “Getting equipment to low-orbit is one thing,” he says, “but that becomes much more difficult on a deep-space mission — for example, to a Martian colony.” He continues: “if we could get to a point where we could print medicine in space, so it would have a longer shelf-life, that could be critical. Right now, that’s just science fiction.”
Tell that to Wong. “I have had discussions about that,” she says, adding that last March the U.S Food and Drug Administration approved a 3D-printed pill. Printing pills in the solar system, she believes, is doable. “It would have many benefits: you could customize doses and would only have to print what you need,” she says. “These solutions will outlive us. A future colonist could download that file and bring it to Mars. It’s a form of immortality, if you think about it.”
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Wong calls her 3D printers “Star Trek replicators,” and her dream is to turn science fiction into reality. Still, she says, “the really exciting possibilities are here on Earth.”
“One in seven Canadians lives with a disability,” she says, statistics memorized. “Nearly a billion people live on less than $2 a day, and 1.4 billion people lack access to electricity.” These people are her target market. She envisions a future where any Canadian can go to a public library and print out a finger splint for $2 — and meanwhile, in developing countries, medical supplies can be printed and drone-delivered to those in need. “My dad is a physician, and he makes house calls, with his bag,” she says. “I like to think the 3D printer is the doctor’s bag of the future.”
There are hurdles to clear: among other things, approval from regulatory boards (she still needs the FDA to clear her finger splints for terrestrial use) and, of course, cost. To date, 3D4MD is funded by ancillary income — fees from keynote speeches, exhibitions, and corporate workshops. Wong is trying to tap new revenue sources, including corporate donors and a new model for the file library (where the basics are cheap but customization costs extra).
At the very least, Wong already has a place in the medical — and celestial — history books. “We’re building a legacy to benefit humanity,” says. “Which is kind of nice.”
Nathaniel Basen is a Toronto-based freelance journalist.