Italian Doctors save coronavirus patients' lives with 3D printed valves

Christian Fracassi, Founder CEO of Isinnova (on the left) designed and 3D printed the missing valve. (Credit: 3D Printing Media Network)

Dan Broadbent

Doctors in Italy have been saving lives using 3D printed parts for ventilators, since they couldn't buy more in time.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the shortage of medical equipment - specifically masks - in the wake of coronavirus panic buying. Basically, big dumb idiots are buying out the supply of things like masks and hand sanitizer and real, actual medical professionals are struggling to keep themselves stocked.

What's really wild is the fact that the average person who is wearing a mask is probably wearing it wrong.

For one, most people are wearing surgical masks - which do not filter out particles as small as viruses. So there's not much real protection there for you. Additionally, most people aren't used to wearing masks, so they'll constantly adjust it, meaning they're touching their face even more than normal, so it's actually more of a hindrance to your safety than anything. (Of course, if your licensed medical professional has told you to wear a mask, gloves, etc, do what they tell you. I am neither a doctor, nor your dad, so I'm not here to tell you what to do.)

Just last week at my dentist appointment, my hygienist said that they had to source new gloves from a different place because the company they buy from is supplied by a manufacturer in China (who was closed for over a month), and because people are buying gloves. But not everyone has the luxury of simply switching suppliers.

Italy is being hit hard by COVID-19. As the crises increases, bodies of those who have died aren't being removed from people's homes, and doctors are having to make truly awesome decisions by rationing equipment. The Italian College of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care (SIAARTI) went as far as publishing guidelines for physicians on how they should prioritize and care for the sick. Essentially, the doctors are deciding who lives or dies because they don't have enough equipment or space in their hospitals.

A hospital in Brescia, Italy ran into this precise problem. They ran out of replacement valves for a respirator, as 3D Printing Media Network reports:

Massimo Temporelli, founder of The FabLab in Milan and a very active and popular promoter of Industry 4.0 and 3D printing in Italy, reported early on Friday 13th that he was contacted by Nunzia Vallini, editor of the Giornale di Brescia, with whom he has been collaborating for several years for the dissemination of Industry 4.0 culture in schools.

She explained that the hospital in Brescia (near one of the hardest-hit regions for coronavirus infections) urgently needed valves for an intensive care device and that the supplier could not provide them in a short time. Running out of the valves would have been dramatic and some people might have lost their lives. So she asked if it would be possible to 3D print them.

After several phone calls to fablabs and companies in Milan and Brescia and then, fortunately, a company in the area, Isinnova, responded to this call for help through its Founder & CEO Cristian Fracassi, who brought a 3D printer directly to the hospital and, in just a few hours, redesigned and then produced the missing piece.

The next day, Temporelli reported that “the system works”, and as of Saturday (3/14/20), ten patients were using the 3D printed part.

Left: The original valve. Right: the 3D printed valve. (Credit: 3D Printing Media Network)

Obviously, saving lives is a good thing. But saving lives with 3D printed parts is next-level.

Of course, this isn't the first time 3D printing has been used in medicine. Last year, doctors did the first middle ear transplant using 3D printing. There's even research into using living cells to 3D print heart tissue.

If we seriously want to have people living in a base on the Moon, or especially if we ever expect to colonize Mars, 3D printing will be a huge part of that.

A couple years ago, I got to go behind-the-scenes at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida (you can read my write-up about it), including Swamp Works. Swamp Works is a "rapid innovation environment", which means they build lots of crazy things, some of which works, and others that don't. One of the things they had was a 3D printer (pictured below) designed to build habitats on the Moon or Mars using the regolith on the Moon or Mars.

(Credit: NASA)

The idea is that the machine is delivered to the surface where NASA wants to build a habitat for astronauts to live in. The 3D printer then constructs the habitat using material readily available on the surface (NASA calls this In-Situ Resource Utilization, or ISRU). The benefit of this is clear - you don't have to bring building materials along with you, which means you have more room for supplies or science, which means you have to launch fewer missions, which means you save money. The bonus is that the structure should also

Other possibilities for ISRU include splitting water ice currently on the moon into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen and oxygen can be used as rocket fuel. Or, I guess you also could just breathe the oxygen (you know, if you really wanted to). On the International Space Station, they already recycle waste water into drinkable water. There is methane on Mars, meaning it's possible to mine Mars for methane to refuel a rocket that runs on methane (which is why SpaceX is using methane as the fuel for the engines on Starship).

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