3D-printed organs let surgeons hone their craft before real patient operations
3D printed replicas of human organs are allowing budding surgeons to practise complex operations before they would typically be allowed to do so.
Researchers from the University of Michigan are developing the lifelike replicas which they say provide a cost-efficient tool to improve practical experience for more medical trainees.
Historically, a surgeon’s skills have been acquired in live patients, anaesthetised animals or human cadavers, but surgical simulation is increasingly recognised as a vital educational tool.
“3D printing is bringing a whole new meaning to hands-on experience for surgeons in training,” said David Zopf, neck surgeon at the university’s CS Mott Children’s Hospital.
“Hands-on experience is critical for acquiring and improving surgical skills, especially of new and complex procedures.”
“This is an exciting tool that not only offers trainees exposure to opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have but that also allows them to demonstrate proficiency of skills before being performed on children.”
Teams working at the hospital have used 3D printing for almost six years, which enables them to produce models at a low cost and a much faster rate. The models are based on computer designs of CT scans.
The ways in which the technology can be applied are many. For example 3D-printed splints made at the university have helped save the lives of babies with severe tracheobronchomalacia, which causes the windpipe to periodically collapse and prevents normal breathing. Mott has also used 3D printing on foetuses to plan for potentially complicated births.
It also has been applied to complex cases involving surgically removing tumours—including the full replica of a young patient’s skull to plan a best course of action.
Uses such as this are particularly valuable in paediatric surgery when there are few alternative options for hands-on training.
“Airway reconstruction for specialised cases is a technically demanding procedure that often involves carving cartilage to support and expand a reconstructed trachea,” said Zopf, who has helped develop high-fidelity models for ear reconstruction, cleft lip, and mandible surgery.
“Currently, a surgeon in training has scarce opportunity to carve cartilage graft for this type of procedure. We want to see if 3D printing can accelerate and enhance surgical training.”
Eighteen surgical trainees in have already taken part in an otolaryngology head and neck surgery dissection course. They practised carving on a 3D-printed model of a harvested human cartilage graft created through a CT scan of a paediatric patient’s rib. The mould was filled with cornstarch and silicone to give it the real feeling and texture of cartilage.
Most participants said the exercise was a very relevant training tool and that the replicas also were useful in demonstrating their skills to teachers.
“You only get one chance to carve a harvested graft from a patient’s rib, so you have to do it perfectly the first time,” said student Cher Zhao. “It takes years of practice to learn the technical skills to do it. This was a very realistic experience and what’s great is you can keep printing dozens of these models at a time so you can practise over and over again.”
Last August a team from the University of Connecticut showed how advances in 3D printing could result in organs actually being printed for use inside a human body.