How 3D printing is helping surgeons to learn their craft

Back in the Victorian era, surgeons and doctors often learned their craft using the bodies of the recently deceased. As can be imagined, this had both ethical implications and practical limitations, and provided an inconsistent and often hurried learning experience for those entering the medical profession.

Things have changed dramatically over time, and now, with the aid of a good 3D printing service, professional medical personnel don’t even need a real human body at all.

3D Models of human organs have been developed by a team of physicians from the Rochester Medical Centre in the US. The work which has been carried out over the past two years by assistant professor Ahmed Ghazi, in the department of Urology, and Jonathan Stone, a biomedical engineer in neurosurgery, is set to revolutionise medical teaching.

Images from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerised tomography (CT), or ultrasound scans, are fed into a computer which generated designs that are then used to produce a mould, using 3D printers. After the initial designs were created, the team tweaked them until eventually the pathology more closely resembled the genuine article. In tandem with the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Rochester, they developed mechanical properties which closely resemble real human tissue.

Rather than being printed with a substance which left them rigid, these fabricated human organ moulds are filled with a hydrogel, which is then frozen. This leaves the organ with the same consistency found in body tissues. The finished product has the same texture and feels exactly like the real thing, according to Dr Ghazi. Furthermore, A red dye can also be injected into the organ so when it is cut with a scalpel, the simulated 3D organ ‘bleeds’, just as a genuine human organ would. In certain other replicated organs, such as the gallbladder, fluids are inserted to represent bile or urine.

The technique, known as SIMPLE (Simulated Inanimate Model for a Physical Learning Experience), has been developed to include the entire spectrum of human anatomy from head to foot, including the creation of 3D printed bone tissue to replicate the skull and spine.

In theory, therefore, the anatomy of an entire body can be constructed using this 3D process and laid out on an operating table. It enables student surgeons to guide their instruments to a specific organ, bypassing other organs and learning which blood vessels need to be clamped as they work. They can also take biopsies, remove tumours and perform other operations.

Student surgeons can practice medical procedures on these assembled organs, prior to using their new skills on the living. Dr Ghazi says an assembled replica of a human body can be attached to a robotic system, so it reacts in a life-like manner. It also gives students a chance to discover how tough or sensitive certain parts of the inner body are.

Being able to practice surgical procedures in a realistic operating room scenario increases safety and patients can be confident that doctors know what they are doing. This 3D printing service heralds a great leap forward in the teaching of surgical procedures.

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