Big Ten Network

How a Minnesota-developed, 3D-printed model is helping surgeons hone their skills: BTN LiveBIG

Practice makes perfect.

We’ve all heard the phrase, and it holds true across a variety of disciplines. But what do you do about an endeavor that demands near-absolute perfection, but rarely can ever be practiced?

In this case, we’re referring to surgery, a skill which requires steady, learned hands. But each surgery is unique – not to mention invasive and traumatic – making rehearsal practically impossible.

Previously, we’ve reported on the strides the University of Minnesota is making in the use of various imaging techniques – including 3D-printing – to help physicians and other medical professionals visualize internal biological structures. At the university’s Visible Heart Lab, they’re even reanimating porcine and human hearts to give students and researchers a more in-depth understanding of how the organ functions.

According to a report from the university’s news service, a research team, led by UMN mechanical engineers, is using 3D-printing technology to create lifelike, patient-specific organ models to help surgeons plan for complicated surgeries, such as whole organ transplants.

“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,” McAlpine added.

While printing organ models isn’t exactly new, previous varieties used plastics and rubbers as the printing medium, yielding hard and inaccurate replicas. The UMN-led team is using a special silicone ink, calibrated to match tissue samples from the patient, in order to print models that can be used to prepare for a number of the elements of surgery.

Based on MRI scans, the detailed internal structure of these new models allows for trial runs of endoscopic visualization procedures. Sensors integrated into the “tissue” of the organ model let surgeons, quite literally, get a feel for the organ being worked on, learning how it responds to pressure and other stresses. They can even practice suturing on the model.

While the current technology is limited to preoperative preparations, McAlpine, who was featured earlier this year on BTN LiveBIG for his 3D-printed sensor technology, foresees a future whereby 3D-printing is used to create actual functioning organs.

“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.”