3D printing already is being used in medicine to provide physician guidance for how to treat actual patients by practicing on prototype models fabricated using this process.
Now this practice being taken to the next level thanks to a team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota, who have 3D-printed lifelike artificial-organ models that mimic the exact anatomical structure, mechanical properties, and look and feel of real organs.
While the artificial organs—which are patient-specific—are not meant to be implanted by actual patients, they can be used by surgeons to practice what it’s like to perform surgery on patients to improve techniques and outcomes, researchers said.
“We are developing next-generation organ models for pre-operative practice,” explained lead researcher Michael McAlpine, an associate professor of mechanical engineering in the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering “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.”
These models could be “game-changers” for helping surgeons better plan and practice for surgery so they catch mistakes they might make before putting the lives of patients in potential danger, he said. “We hope this will save lives by reducing medical errors during surgery,” McAlpine said.
A team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota have 3D-printed lifelike artificial-organ models that mimic the exact anatomical structure, mechanical properties, and look and feel of real organs. The models can be used by surgeons to practice surgery before applying their skills to patients to prevent errors during actual procedures. (Source: McAlpine Research Group)
Dr. Robert Sweet, a urologist at the University of Washington who previously worked at the University of Minnesota, approached McAlpine and his team looking for more accurate 3D-printed models of the prostate to practice surgeries.
The organs created by the University of Minnesota team are starkly different in that they were developed using customized silicone-based inks that were “tuned” to precisely match the mechanical properties of actual tissue from several patients’ prostates. The researchers then attached soft, 3D-printed sensors to the organ models, observing the reaction of the model prostates during compression tests and when applying various 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 a paper the team published in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies. “This could change how surgeons think about personalized medicine and pre-operative practice.”
Future plans see the researchers hoping to use the new method to 3D print lifelike models of more complicated organs—such as those with tumors or deformities—using multiple inks. This could help surgeons test various strategies for removing tumors or correcting complications in specific patients.
The team also aims to use the models beyond surgical practice and into actual application to create artificial organs for transplants, McAlpine said.
“If we could replicate the function of these tissues and organs, we might someday even be able to create ‘bionic organs’ for transplants,” he 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.”
Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years.