When Minghao, a 12-year old Chinese boy, was playing soccer earlier this year, the seemingly healthy player had no idea he was on the cusp of devastating news.
During the game, he headed the ball; it was a simple maneuver regularly seen throughout any match. The next day Minghao (a pseudonym) woke up stiff, sore, and with a severe aching in his neck.
Doctors examined him and, after tests, delivered the type of news that every parent dreads…
Their son had a malignant tumor known as Ewing's sarcoma in the second vertebra of his neck.
Conventional surgery to remove the vertebra was not a promising option. Recovery would be prolonged and the conventional remedy of inserting a titanium tube, held in place by cement and screws, was especially ill-suited for Minghao. As he grew there was a very real chance the bones around the tube would impede and damage it, creating their own dire set of consequences.
What happened next is one of the most exciting breakthroughs I've come across in my career. It's nothing short of revolutionary and, for the companies involved, it's an equally awe-inducing investment opportunity…
A $4 Billion Market Comes Alive
Faced with only daunting options, doctors at Peking University Third Hospital decided to take a cutting-edge approach.
Their decision: Minghao would became the world's first patient to receive an artificial vertebrae made with a 3D printer.
The young man is still recovering, and the full results and measure of the success will only become definitive with time. This we know: the structural design of the replacement vertebrae, and its ability to facilitate anticipated growth, provide him with far better prospects than he might ever have hoped for without the technology.
The operation underscores how 3D printing is already transforming medical care. It gives doctors the ability to make custom implants that perfectly fit the patient's anatomy, especially in cases when donor material is hard or impossible to come by.
It's poised to become big business. The market research firm IDTechEx says the medical and dental market for 3D printers is set to grow from $141 million today to $868 million by 2025.
At that rate, medical 3D printing will account for more than 20% of what IDTechEx projects will be a $4 billion market for 3D products and services.
In fact, the field may already be growing faster than experts can accurately track. That's because doctors, like Minghao's, will often have to follow a patient's progress for more than 18 months before reporting their breakthroughs.
Consider that roughly two years ago doctors used a 3D-planted artificial hip to allow a 15-year-old Swedish girl to walk again after conventional surgery to correct a congenital disease had failed. Today, doctors say the teenager is healthy and can walk without crutches or a cane.
In yet another example, doctors at the Netherlands' University Medical Center at Utrecht helped a woman who suffered from a condition that causes a thickening of the skull that places pressure on the brain. The doctors used a 3D printer to make an implant that replaced the entire top part of the 22-year-old's skull…
Given the diversity of examples, and above are just a few, the uses of 3D printing in science and healthcare appear virtually unlimited.
This presents investors with a profit opportunity and challenge. The diversity of custom designs have slowed the rate at which one company can emerge as a clear "pure play" on a major U.S. exchange.
Two Discounted Opportunities for 3D Options in an Emerging Field
But two of the 3D industry's main players are ramping up their medically focused efforts.
3D Systems Corp. (NYSE:DDD) uses its Personalized Surgery and Medical Devices division to implement 3D printing technology in a number of areas including dental and anatomical models, surgical guides, implants, and prosthetics.
At the same time, DDD is working to bolster its product offerings through strategic acquisitions.
In April, DDD acquired Medical Modeling Inc., a leader in personalized surgical treatments and in creating patient-specific medical devices. DDD followed up that purchase with another one, this time spending $120 million in July to scoop up Simbionix, a global leader in 3D virtual reality surgical simulation.
Meanwhile, 3D Systems' competitor Stratasys, Ltd. (Nasdaq: SSYS) is also active in the medical space. SSYS has a 3D-printed device called the Wilmington Robotic Exoskeleton (WREX) that has shown early promise in facilitating extremity motion. The 3D-printed WREX device is made of hinged metal bars and resistance bands. To date, it has benefited 15 children and the number should only rise.
Despite these huge medical advances, the stocks of DDD and SSYS are under pressure, in part because of sector overvaluation based on perhaps a little too much industry optimism. DDD fell recently after offering reduced guidance for its forthcoming third-quarter earnings. It's now off more than 50% year to date, yet still carries a 109.5 P/E ratio, while SSYS is down more than 10% this year.
About the Author
Michael A. Robinson is one of the top financial analysts working today. His book "Overdrawn: The Bailout of American Savings" was a prescient look at the anatomy of the nation's S&L crisis, long before the word "bailout" became part of our daily lexicon. He's a Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer and reporter, lauded by the Columbia Journalism Review for his aggressive style. His 30-year track record as a leading tech analyst has garnered him rave reviews, too. Today he is the editor of the monthly tech investing newsletter Nova-X Report as well as Radical Technology Profits, where he covers truly radical technologies – ones that have the power to sweep across the globe and change the very fabric of our lives – and profit opportunities they give rise to. He also explores "what's next" in the tech investing world at Strategic Tech Investor.