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Game Changers- Medical 3D printing

Game Changers: Medical 3D printing

By Priyanka Dayal McCluskey

MAY 08, 2015


Using a 3-D printer to create models of their patients’ body parts lets surgeons do a test run.

Surgery is delicate work. Anything doctors can do to practice their cuts before heading to the operating room may improve a patient’s chances of surviving and thriving. That’s why so many Boston surgeons are turning to an invention of the tech world — the 3-D printer — to help them prepare for operations. Doctors and engineers program the sophisticated machines to replicate body parts of specific patients. If a patient has a brain tumor, for example, that abnormality will be reproduced exactly in the printed model of the patient’s brain. Surgeons use these 3-D models to practice surgery, to touch and feel and cut, just as they will during the actual surgery. It gives them, and their patients, a bit more confidence before the day of surgery.

It’s not so different from the way athletes practice their skills — but, of course, the stakes are higher. “You play tennis, you play golf, the first thing you do is you take practice swings,” says Dr. Peter Weinstock, head of the simulation program at Boston Children’s Hospital. “You want to rehearse, you want to give your body a sense of what it will feel like and remove all surprises as best as you can.”

Children’s Hospital operates one of the leading in-house 3-D printing programs in the country. One printer, sitting in a small room in the basement, has produced more than 200 models since 2013. And two smaller printers recently arrived.

Surgeons generally request 3-D models for their most complex surgeries, but Weinstock is seeing his colleagues use models all the time. “Why would you not take a look?” he says. “Why would you go in blind?”

That sentiment is shared by some of the surgeons at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. They have used models to practice one of the most difficult surgeries of all — the face transplant. Brigham doctors have also turned to models to prepare for treating tumors in vital body parts like the head, neck, and spine. The 3-D models are developed using digital data from scans such as MRIs and CTs. “Seeing the exact 3-D nature of the tumor can help them better plan,” says Dr. Thomas C. Lee, assistant section head of neuroradiology at Brigham.

When surgeons plan better, they can also finish procedures more quickly, cutting the amount of time a sedated patient is lying on an operating table. “By reducing OR times, it could reduce the costs associated with it,” says Dr. Andrew R. Scott, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center.

Doctors agree 3-D printing holds great potential for medicine, not just in modeling but in making prosthetic body parts. Tufts, for example, is using 3-D printers to make prosthetic ears for some children born without them.

As a tool for surgery, it’s still an expensive technology that requires many hours and thousands of dollars to produce the most complex models. How to pay for that remains an open question. Still, 3-D printing technology appears to be more than a passing fad among Boston surgeons. “To an increasing degree,” Lee says, “3-D printing and 3-D modeling is going to revolutionize how we treat patients.”


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