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3D printed organs help improve pre-surgical preparation

Imagine that a surgeon is holding a duplicated organ in hand when illustrating specific pathologies to the patient before a scheduled operation. Thanks to the 3D printing technology, a true-to-life anatomical model promises better communication between doctors and patients, and much more.

Since the 1980s, 3D printing has developed rapidly and been applied to various fields. Now, it’s making the rounds in the healthcare industry, which can bring transformative changes, seeing that 3D printed replicas can help with the pre-surgical preparation and surgery training by providing accurate, accessible and cost-effective alternatives to cadavers.

“[3D printing is] creating opportunities for patients who were previously considered inoperable, because surgeons can get more comfortable with the procedure [through preparation and training],” said Mike Gaisford, director of marketing for healthcare solutions at Stratasys, an industrial 3D printer manufacturer.

Two main 3D printing technologies make it possible for Stratasys to create a lifelike organ model with a certain disease, like a kidney with a tumor in it. The technologies can also duplicate muscles and tissues with the original color and texture being simulated.

One is PolyJet, which produces full-color, multi-material, pre-surgery models in anatomically correct detail, derived directly from unique patient CT scans. With microscopic layer resolution and accuracy down to 0.1 mm, it can produce thin walls and complex geometries within organs using various technologies. Another Stratasys technology can replicate human anatomy with a wide range of clinical scenarios and pathologies. Those models can effectively replace costly cadavers.

Using a replica with realistic texture, color and faithful reflection of the complexity of the original organ, surgeons can plan out operations or show the models to patients and families. It’s more visual than just looking at 2D CT or MRI scans and trying to “do some mental gymnastics” to come up with a 3D concept for guidance, said Gaisford.

Also, in contrast to cadavers, 3D printing models are more portable, which enables surgeons to practice on an anatomical piece anywhere they like, such as at a meeting room or an office. The shorter time span to create a model makes 3D printing a potentially good choice when dealing with an emergency, compared to buying cadavers or animals for pre-operational use. But for now, 3D printing technology benefits mostly complex surgery cases, such as an unusual brain aneurysm with a complex situation or uncertainty, but not routine ones. And in general, top-tier academic medical centers are the likely customers for this technology for pre-surgical planning and training.

“[3D printing] is changing the way providers do their work,” said Gaisford.

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