There is plenty of evidence to show that 3D printed anatomical models greatly improve the outcomes of medical procedures. When surgeons can plan and practice an operation on a perfect 3D printed replica of a patient’s organ, surgeries tend to take less time, as does recovery. But there are still limitations to the 3D printed organs being used today. They may look exactly like patients’ individual organs, as they’re created from CT and MRI scan data, but they’re only replicas in the visual sense. They’re still typically made from hard plastic, so they’ll have a completely different feel than a live organ, plus they’re extremely difficult to cut into, making surgical planning more of a visual endeavor. They won’t react the way an actual organ will react during surgery, either.
This is not to say that 3D printed organ models aren’t extremely useful, but…could they be made to be more useful? They sure can, says a team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota. The researchers have 3D printed organ models that not only look like actual organs, they feel like them and have the same mechanical properties. They even have soft sensors that provide feedback to let surgeons know how much pressure they can apply without tissue damage, for example.
The research was published in a paper entitled “3D Printed Organ Models with Physical Properties of Tissue and Integrated Sensors,” which you can access here.
“We are developing next-generation organ models for pre-operative practice. The organ models we are 3D printing are almost a perfect replica in terms of the look and feel of an individual’s organ, using our custom-built 3D printers,” said lead researcher Michael McAlpine, an associate professor of mechanical engineering in the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering and a 2017 recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).
“We think these organ models could be ‘game-changers’ for helping surgeons better plan and practice for surgery. We hope this will save lives by reducing medical errors during surgery.”
The team was initially contacted by Dr. Robert Sweet, a urologist formerly from the University of Minnesota now working at the University of Washington. He was looking for better 3D models of the prostate. The researchers took MRI scans and tissue samples from the prostates of three patients, then they developed customized silicone-based 3D printing inks that can be tuned to precisely match the mechanical properties of each patient’s individual prostate – so they’re not just 3D printing a model that feels like a prostate, they’re 3D printing a model that feels like a specific patient’s prostate.
The models were 3D printed in the university’s custom-built 3D printer, then soft 3D printed sensors were attached. The researchers then observed how the models reacted to compression tests and a variety of surgical tools.
“The sensors could give surgeons real-time feedback on how much force they can use during surgery without damaging the tissue,” said Kaiyan Qiu, a University of Minnesota mechanical engineering postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper. “This could change how surgeons think about personalized medicine and pre-operative practice.”
The researchers hope to proceed further by 3D printing models of more complicated organs, using multiple inks. Surgeons could use these to actually practice removing a tumor, for example, and test different methods to see which is the most successful before operating on the patient. McAlpine has goals that go beyond even that, however.
“If we could replicate the function of these tissues and organs, we might someday even be able to create ‘bionic organs’ for transplants,” McAlpine said. “I call this the ‘Human X’ project. It sounds a bit like science fiction, but if these synthetic organs look, feel, and act like real tissue or organs, we don’t see why we couldn’t 3D print them on demand to replace real organs.”
Authors of the paper include Kaiyan Qiu, Zichen Zhao, Ghazaleh Haghiashtiani, Shuang-Zhuang Guo, Mingyu He, Ruitao Su, Zhijie Zhu, Didarul B. Bhuiyan, Paari Murugan, Fanben Meng, Sung Hyun Park, Chih-Chang Chu, Brenda M. Ogle, Daniel A. Saltzman, Badrinath R. Konety, Robert M. Sweet and Michael C. McAlpine.
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[Source/Images: University of Minnesota]