3D printing organs is a small part of a technology that contributes to a wide range of industries. But no one can deny that the impact is greatest for the medical community, and the patients and families they’re helping.
Biomedical 3D printing is often associated with innovative new prosthetics and affordable custom implants, but that’s only half of the story.
3D printing organs has completely changed surgical planning for many doctors, with impressive results.
Doctors Find Their Optimal Surgical Approach with Medical 3D Printing
These days, doctors with the right 3D printer can take scans of an individual’s organs and print out customized, realistic models of their unique structure. The method brings forward a wealth of information that doctors can use to inform a optimal surgical approach based on each patient’s unique anatomy.
Here are a few of the many ways these organ models are helping with surgical planning:
Heart Models for Individualized Diagnosis
Researchers at MIT and Boston Children’s Hospital recently put together a system to create physical, 3D-printed models of a patient’s heart in just a few hours.
The models, based on MRI scans, can help surgeons prepare for the unique anatomy of each individual patient, allowing them to plan an ultra-personalized approach.
The new method really goes above and beyond standard surgical planning techniques. Creating printable models used to require researchers to manually indicate an organ’s boundaries on a series of cross-sections from the MRI data, which can take up to 10 hours to complete.
The new method, using algorithms and a 3D printer, gives doctors an accurate physical heart model in about an hour.
Defeating a Complex Aneurysm
For some, 3D printed organ models already mean the difference between an inoperable aneurysm and a successful life-saving surgery.
Last year, a 3D-printed model of a woman’s brain helped surgeons plan a life-saving surgery to correct an aneurysm.
Dr. Siddiqui, who was involved with the surgery, said, “There are some commonalities between all human beings, but at the end of the day our vascular tree is as different as our fingerprints.”
The model helped surgeons perfect a plan catered to the patient’s specific needs.
“While we were doing that mock procedure we realised that we had to change some of the tools we wanted to use, given her anatomy,” said Dr Siddiqui.
Avoiding Deadly Complications
For many surgeries, a surgeon won’t know what approach to take until they open the person up and look at the organ in question.
But 3D printed organs are a unique new tool that doctors are using to select an approach before surgery begins.
In one such case, the cardiology team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Boston decided to create a full-sized heart model after digital imaging was ineffective at helping them plan a surgical approach.
Radiologist Mike Steigner had to only spend a few moments looking at the 3D-printed model to know that their original plan of performing a minimally invasive catheterization had to go out the window. The patient needed open heart surgery, and the team had avoided an unforeseeable complication thanks to the model.
3D Printing Organs for Procedural Practice
Practice does make perfect — but for surgeons, this is a bit of a problem. The best model they can use to practice complex surgical procedures (short of a living human person) is a cadaver, and luckily, these are usually in short supply.
This is one important way that 3D printing organs is changing healthcare — the models serve as the first life-like alternative to human organs that surgeons can use to plan and perfect their procedures.
And the applications are wide-reaching:
3D Printing Organs: The Biotexture Wet Model
A Japanese firm is producing a wide range of 3D printed organ models based on scans of real organs. The method, called the Biotexture Wet Model, has allowed researchers to create an ultra-realistic lung, complete with blood vessels and tumors.
“With the wet model, doctors can experience the softness of organs and see them bleed,” said Tomohiro Kinoshita of Fasotec. “We aim to help doctors improve their skills with the models.”
Here’s a video of doctors practicing with the model.
“I suppose that not only young, inexperienced doctors but also experienced doctors can perform a better operation if they can have a rehearsal first,” said Dr. Maki Sugimoto.
Preparing to Treat a Life-Threatening Heart Condition
For sensitive surgeries, practice can mean the difference between life and death for a patient.
Last year, a 3D-printed model of a 5-year-old’s heart helped doctors practice a procedure to solve her life-threatening heart condition.
Mia Gonzalez was born with a rare heart malformation. Her vascular ring was wrapped around her trachea, making it difficult to breathe.
But doctors at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami 3D printed several models of her heart, so they could practice surgery with her unique heart structure. Their preparations led to a successful surgery, and managed to reduce operation time by about 2 hours.
Perfecting Ear Reconstruction
In another use case, University of Washington researchers have been 3D-printing lifelike cartilage to practice reconstructing realistic ears. Before this, practice using a realistic material wasn’t possible — the procedure involves using rib cartilage to create the new ear, which is in limited supply.
Surgeons are now able to perfect their ear reconstructions using as much 3D-printed cartilage as they need, so they can approached the precious rib cartilage with a practiced hand.
3D Bioprinting Makes More Surgeries for Children Possible
Perhaps none have benefitted more from biomedical 3D printing organs than children.
Because it’s so difficult to find ways to practice complex or novel procedures, doctors are hesitant to try them on young children. Operations like these can be incredibly risky, and it wouldn’t be worthwhile to endanger babies with their whole lives ahead of them, unless it was a life-or-death situation.
But 3D printing organs is changing all that, by giving doctors the models they need to confidently plan and practice these risky procedures.
Here are a few success stories:
An Infant Gets a New Face
A 2-year-old girl was born with a Tessier facial cleft — her face could not fuse properly. The condition was not life threatening, but her parents sought help at Boston Children’s Hospital anyway.
A 3D-printed models of her skull appeared as the solution. After viewing her skull at different angles that an MRI could never capture, and practicing different cuts and manipulations, doctors there were able to justify the risk of performing a facial reconstruction on such a young girl.
2-Year old Receives First Adult Kidney Transplant
Just recently, a 2-year-old girl was the first child to receive an adult kidney transplant with the help of 3D printing organs.
Lucy suffered heart failure as a baby, which caused her kidneys to shut down. To avoid a lifetime on dialysis, surgeons performed a transplant using a kidney donated by her father, Chris.
Doctors at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust were confident they could perform the surgery successfully after 3D printing models of Lucy’s abdomen and Chris’ kidney to help them plan and practice.
Pankaj Chandak, a transplant registrar, said, “The most important benefit is to patient safety. The 3D printed models allow informative, hands-on planning, ahead of the surgery with replicas that are the next best thing to the actual organs themselves.”
Future Directions of 3D Printing Organs
As success stories with the help of 3D printed organ models continue to surface, it’s clear that traditional MRI or CT scans don’t carry nearly the same diagnostic and practical value as a real model that doctors can see and touch.
Still, you might say 3D printing is an underutilized technology in the medical field. Only around 75 US hospitals have a 3D printer for the purpose of printing model organs, of about 200 around the world.
Despite how few doctors have access to this technology, the models continue to help surgeons plan, prepare, and practice a wide range of operations with impressive results.
In coming years, it’s only expected that 3D printing organs will continue to change healthcare at an increasing pace.
Researchers around the world are working on ways to further optimize 3D printing organs — MIT researchers are developing methods to make it faster, and Japanese scientists just came up with a way to make it even cheaper.
It would seem that the only thing stopping 3D printing organs from completely reinventing how doctors learn and approach surgeries is a little bit of time and a lot more 3D printers.